The Romance Behind Ha's Đặc Biệt Is A Fish Sauce-And-Lemongrass Type Of Love
Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha met at Mission Chinese in 2015. Since then, they’ve traveled the world and created a New York food experience unlike any other.
By Shyan Zakeri
The Ha's Đặc Biệt story merits a bigger and better setting than this simple interview. So, as a gesture of good faith to any freelance writers mining for a story to pitch, I’ll help you out.
For me, the story starts with a pushcart, natural wine importer Zev Rovine, and some grilled shrimp outside the Brooklyn Museum in 2020. From there, the couple behind Ha's Đặc Biệt, Sadie Mae Burns and Anthony Ha, are the throughlines in a story about eating in New York in the post-pandemic years (think The Four Horsemen, Kit, Hunky Dory, Ops, Leo, Rolo’s, Frenchette, Dame, Lords, Yellow Rose, Ensenada, Vinegar Hill House).
Sadie and Anthony met while working at Mission Chinese nearly a decade ago. They also cut their teeth at Roman’s and Frenchette — three seminal models for New York restaurants. How do the later two survive under the colossal pressures this city inflicts? What went wrong at Mission? For restaurants in the city, to exist is a miracle. To thrive is another thing entirely.
At 70 Forysth, they spent five fish sauce and rice-filled months two doors up from Spicy Village. Across the Atlantic, they arrived at Rue Paul Bert for their second tour in France, where they cooked with Julien Pham at the storied Bistrot Paul Bert. After a short stop at Oranj in London, they were home. Through these markers and a cooking trip in Montreal at Gia run by Ryan Gray, Marley Sniatowsky, and Janice Tiefenbach, Sadie and Anthony have taken Vietnamese food beyond its familiar traditional interpretations and are seemingly building a new model fashioned around the bistro culture that once made New York shine. In a critical hour where our excitement of appetite wanes and fullness of spirit leans towards despondency, the two are poised to show their mettle. How far can they go?
Can Ha’s find their balance between hype and community? Will they be able to juggle the financial need for a long and healthy waitlist with the desire for an intimate experience? These antagonistic realities aren’t unique just to them — they’re something everyone passionate about making space in this increasingly hostile city must contend with. Proceeded by egregious commercial rents, bureaucratic hurdles at heights that exist nowhere else in this country, and a consumer base now with more money than good sense, the success of pop-ups has been, in part, a reaction to this diseased state of system. Is a brick and mortar founded from the ground up the proper remedy?
To try and describe Sadie and Anthony is impossible. What they put out is theirs, without comparison. Their influences go far beyond what’s presented at any given pop-up, but there is no doubt that the plate in front of each and every diner is the fullest expression of their union. No one cooking now embodies New York City more than they do.
Below is a candid, but heavily edited chat with Ha's Đặc Biệt recorded at 10am on a Saturday.
Shyan: Why do people eat your food?
Anthony: They’re addicted.
Sadie: I’ve been asking myself the same thing. We make it so hard for people that it really does blow my mind. We change the location, it’s impossible to get a reservation. You never know the menu. We never announce it far in advance so people have to set notifications for our IG posts. And then it’s gone. If you come late, we might be out of stuff…All of the elements are changing. I think they come because there is no other food like it in New York.
Shyan: No one cooks like you do.
Sadie: We’ve carved out a niche for ourselves. It doesn’t taste like the other Vietnamese food out there, but it tastes like Vietnamese food.
Anthony: It doesn't taste like American food. It’s not too fancy.
Sadie: It’s its own thing at this point. You can come and if you’re Vietnamese it’ll taste very nostalgic. And if you’re not you’ll go “I’ve just never had anything like this before.” We’ve taken the New York restaurant formula and plugged in Vietnamese flavors.
Shyan: You’ve been doing this for three years full time. Very few restaurants have maintained this level of popularity for that long. If they can even stay open.
Sadie: We’re only on the up. It hits a lot of different notes. There’s this couple element that people are endeared by. The hype. “You can’t get it - better luck next time!”
Anthony: “Oh they’re leaving - gotta go now.”
Sadie: That causes a ripple effect. People talk about that. The fact that it’s hard to get into creates this effect. People will come up to us saying “you guys are famous” - and actually we’re not. Like, at all. It’s not as successful as people think it is. There’s no strategy. We don’t think about it like that. We just do things on a whim.
Anthony: You watched the bagel pop-up [with Apollo Bagels] happen in real time.
Shyan: But the idea for that was ruminating for a while. You guys were talking about that in Montreal [in May].
Anthony: That’s how it got on the calendar.
Sadie: “Oh we should do this.” And that’s how it happens. We run into someone at the farmer’s market and they’ll tell us we should do a pop-up here. Great.
Anthony: We made Joe Beddia a pizza and he said come down to Beddia to do a pop-up. Ok. Duh. Our pizza was great, but it was also just Mike’s [Fadem of Op’s] dough. And they both make great pizza but they have to make the classics most of the time. They can’t do a wacky lobster pizza like that.
Shyan: Aren’t you also pigeonholed in the same way?
Anthony: 100%. We deal with creative blocks sometimes. But, everything comes at us quick. It’s hard to move around so much and also be creative. We don’t have the time to. Can’t risk it. So we end up doing similar things - things we’ve done in the past. But, we’ve done so much in the past that every menu can still feel different.
Sadie: That’s the part of doing it as a pop-up that we’ve grown frustrated with. You don’t know what the kitchen is going to be like, you don’t know what the team is going to be like. We’re designing this menu that has to be easy across the board…
Anthony: Because we don’t have a week to test things.
Sadie: And then we get there and we don’t know where anything is. Cumbersome in that way. That part is getting old. It’s not exciting to go into a new kitchen. I just want to know where things are, have a steady team that knows our food. That part gives us a little bit of whiplash - hinders you creatively.
Shyan: You’re touching on a lot of my questions without me having to ask them. Let’s talk about menu development. You guys plan these pop-ups fast. Where does that start?
Sadie: We try not to do work in the apartment.
Anthony: It starts at the market.
Sadie: We always do the salad. Usually have some sort of crudo, tartare, or carpaccio. There’s a formula to how we build the menu and then we plug and play from there. One rogue dish, something different. From the internet maybe - Anthony loves Youtube. “Wouldn’t it be cool to do this with these things that are flooding the market right now.” At Ops, it was the pizza, and these ribs braised in peppers and tomatoes based off an Italian antipasto.
Anthony: But then you add lemongrass and fish sauce and put a little Nước Mắm, and eat it with rice and it tastes like home food. So crazy. But we made Italian food. We wanted to do that because we had these ribs in Ardigna [a restaurant in Sicily]. “Oh remember that thing we ate.” We always go back to those memories.
Shyan: So travel’s pivotal to your creative process?
Sadie: We’re obsessive [about eating out].
Anthony: We pulled ideas in Paris, in Barcelona, in London, just from eating out. In Montreal…actually that was a Gia dish too [referring to the ribs].
Sadie: The thing that’s missing in New York…it’s uninspiring because it’s too fussy. Too overthought. We like straight forward cooking. That’s why we call it home food. Normally the things that we’re doing don’t have more than five elements to them. We really focus and hone in on those flavors. I think in New York people really want to prove themselves.
Anthony: “I gotta be a chef.”
Sadie: That’s just not how we’re naturally inclined to cook. So when we go to somewhere like Barcelona that’s what all the food is like. Naples - countryside cooking. Not so much in Paris. That shit is very overthought. I wouldn’t call us nouveau. Maybe. Actually.
Anthony: We could be nouveau.
Photo by Justin Sarinana.
Shyan: Where do you want to go next?
Anthony: We have to go to Vietnam.
Sadie: Last time we were there was 2018. We haven’t been since we started the pop-up. We’re almost reaching a bit of a block.
Anthony: I want to go to Turkey. Portugal.
Sadie: But Vietnam is the most important. Because now we would look at it through the lens of the pop-up. We can come back to New York with so many more ideas.
Anthony: Eating food other than what we were chasing years ago. At the time we were just looking for a baseline.
Sadie: There’s nowhere to go and pull direct Vietnamese inspiration from in New York. You kind of can in California.
Anthony: But there - it’s traditional, and it’s done really well, but there’s just stuff you can’t get unless you’re in Vietnam. The herbs, the dishes. Jerald [Head from Mắm] can do that, but that’s because he spent real time there. He speaks Vietnamese and his wife is from up north, and they’re eating these dishes that we’ve probably never eaten. And can’t eat unless we’re there.
Sadie: Last time in Vietnam there were so many young people who had started businesses and were doing new things. To have access to that now would completely change how we cook. We should book our flight right after this.
Shyan: I could see a trip to Vietnam as the start of a new chapter…
Sadie: We’re looking for a space. There’s so much we can do at this moment.
Shyan: You still have momentum. After all this time. I think because truly no one is doing shit like you.
Sadie: We’re trying to strike while the iron is still hot and capture that momentum. We could go big or…The two things we’re looking at right now are pulling us in two completely different directions, and restaurant owner dynamics. One would require a lot more labor, and money, investors, parties involved. Which is exciting and great. But then there’s the idea we pursue something more intimate and hands-on. We’ve been stewing over what feels better for us, especially as a first thing. Whatever we decide to do the stakes are high. The anticipation is there. People will come in with a whole set of expectations so it’s important we keep things within our own personal economy. We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew and lose that sense of intimacy.
Anthony: We have regulars. We’re catering major life moments for them. Engagements, birthdays, weddings.
Sadie: I don’t want to feel totally detached from that right way. To walk in and open up a machine. That would feel disingenuous. But it’s hard to think about how to make money in the long term, while also keeping things authentic to us.
Anthony: But eventually, who knows.
Shyan: Any hesitations about a brick and mortar? You can’t fuck off anymore. Can’t pick grapes in France for three weeks.
Anthony: Can’t take a trip to Montreal on a whim.
Sadie: Ideally I would love to close for two weeks in August. Don’t know why that’s not possible. Just have to budget. So we don’t feel totally trapped. We want a routine though. We’ve done so much moving around. This year - so many different events. It’s insane. I, personally, can’t keep doing that anymore.
Anthony: We’ve finally settled down.
Sadie: But you’re leaving, and then we’re going to LA in September.
Shyan: When you came back from London you told me, “We’re never fucking travelling again” and expressed to me your love of New York.
Sadie: You’ve got to leave in order to love it again. It’s the best place on Earth. For what we do, there’s nowhere else where it would work. We’re so lucky. We have so many other people here like you, Char [Un of Kreung Cambodia], Mina [Park of 99] who are in similar boats and being able to commiserate and collaborate together is amazing.
Shyan: There’s not a lot of us left.
Anthony: I think pop-ups are done. It was a flash in the pan phenomena. With the pandemic, people were bored and unemployed. It happened organically and now people want to do it for different reasons. Sunny [Lee] settled down [at Achilles Heel].
Sadie: You can actually curate an experience with a restaurant. You have control. We had a little bit of that with Forsyth. Chaotic and scrappy, but it was a taste.
Anthony: The lowboy would be constantly filled to the top.
Sadie: Still we were able to host people in our own space. That was the best. On our own plates. What we’ve been collecting forever. We love to collaborate and that’s been the most exciting part. Coming up with ideas with friends. I don’t think we even call it a pop-up anymore. We do events, I guess. But it gets old for both you and the consumer. I never wanted to be an event caterer. That’s something we feel stifled by right now. Pop-ups, they’re kinda embarrassing. It’s become so watered down and washed out. I can’t wait to never have to say I run a pop-up again.
Shyan: You’ve built up a lot of good will over the years. Seemingly you’ve got carte blanche from the powers that be, at least from the outside. You can go where you want to go and do what you want to do. What’s eluded you?
Sadie: It hasn’t felt fully ours. Elements sure, have been great, but we haven’t realized the full picture. We’ve been so lucky - to just send a message on Instagram and fly to Paris for a few months. And then London right after. What people have seen, is only a small fraction of what we can do. We haven’t had the opportunity to really showcase that. Even if we don’t know what that is yet. I’m excited for that.
Anthony: We feel a little stuck.
Shyan: So partnership…The two of you built this together and have been able to lean on each other in certain times.
Sadie: That’s why we can do this. We have two different brains working on it. For the menu, we work 100% collaboratively on it, but as we go on roles develop organically.
Shyan: At Forsyth, you kinda took a more front of house role.
Sadie: And I love that and I want to do that. I can remember every person who has come to a pop-up. I’m like a politician.
Anthony: That’s why we have regulars.
Sadie: And he’s so much more technically skilled than I am in the kitchen. So naturally those roles will continue to form to make it more sustainable for us.
Anthony: But you’ll still prep right?
Sadie: In truth, we can’t stand next to each other in a kitchen all day, everyday. We’d go crazy.
Anthony: We’ve grown to that point where we have to find a space to do that. Because at a pop-up that’s just not possible. Everyone has to do everything.
Shyan: Has there ever been a moment where one of you wanted to throw in the towel and the other helped pull them back in?
Anthony: Well that’s part of the reason I’m going to France for three weeks.
Sadie: It was feeling a bit intense. Being a couple while also being business partners is intense.
Anthony: But also we’ve been on a really big run and just needed to stop a slow down for a bit. The last real vacation was Sicily, a year ago. It was nonstop before and after that.
Sadie: We pull each other back in because we love this. I wouldn’t do anything else. Ever. From the time I was in highschool, this was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. And now…we’re doing it on our own terms. We’ve really weaseled our way into this. What I’m about to say is the corniest thing in the world but, Anthony’s dream was to cook in Paris and we did that. My dream was to cook in London and we did that. This is the only thing we’ve ever wanted to do.