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A spread of Rice Paper Scissors food — banh mi, pho, and more — on a colorful tablecloth Andria Lo

A Pioneering Vietnamese-American Pop-Up Bows Out After a Stellar 9-Year Run

One last hurrah for Rice Paper Scissors, which shined a spotlight on Vietnamese food in SF and made pop-ups cool before anyone knew what pop-ups were

The first time I encountered Rice Paper Scissors was in a hazy, booze-filled 2012 episode of Anthony Bourdain’s The Layover. There was Bourdain, glowing from both the neon lighting of the nameless warehouse where founders Valerie Luu and Katie Kwan cooked their signature Vietnamese street food dishes and also from the copious amounts of liquor he had already consumed.

Pop-ups were still new back then. Mission Chinese had just started, around the same time as Rice Paper Scissors in 2011. The Great Recession had upended countless lives and businesses, but the culinary world of San Francisco was trying something new. Bourdain couldn’t quite wrap his head around it. “Is this a business or a performance art?” he asks after Luu tells him most of the staff was composed of volunteers. “Looking at this from the get-go I’d be like, I’m busting my ass ... I’m gouging these hipsters for every dollar I can squeeze out of them.”

Kwan, unflappable, does something that rarely seemed to happen to Bourdain; she flusters him. “Did you think you were going to have your book published when you were writing it?” she asks. After stumbling over his words, he relents: “No, basically.” “So were you looking to make money? What were you doing it for?” she says.

Bourdain shrugs. Smiles. And finally, nods. Kwan’s gotten the best of him.

Eight years after that episode aired, Rice Paper Scissors, as the Bay Area has known it, is coming to an end. Luu and Kwan will host their final event this Sunday — a takeout-oriented pop-up run out of the Chairman, at 2723 Oakdale Avenue in Bayview-Hunters Point — after nearly a decade as standard bearers for the Bay Area pop-up scene.

The pop-up’s journey is an encapsulation of the highs and lows of this country’s food culture in this country during the past 10 years: born out of the 2008 recession, surviving the shuttering of different venues that hosted it, featured by the pre-eminent food voice of a generation, and finally shut down by the pandemic. Rice Paper Scissors may not have the brick-and-mortar legacy that causes us to pause after it closes, but the loss of the spirit it embodied for so long is just as crushing.

I first went to a Rice Paper Scissors pop-up not long after watching that Layover episode, and it was one of the most fun meals I had that year. The restaurant that hosted it, like so many Luu and Kwan popped up inside of, doesn’t exist anymore — it was a vaguely Korean-ish place whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I sat at the counter with a friend, watching Luu and Kwan chat with folks, saying hi to regulars and newcomers alike. Dessert that night was fish sauce ice cream, which Luu promised would taste like caramel. It did.

Beef pho rolls on a white plate with pink background
Rice Paper Scissors’ beef pho rolls
Andria Lo

But now, that chapter of Rice Paper Scissors is coming to a close. “It’s not the end,” Kwan says of the final pop-up. “It’s an evolution. We are not serving food after this, aside from occasional events from time to time. What we’re really going to do is go back to where we started — trying to do things that we feel are really meaningful and inventive, just not serving food every day.”

“This has been our full time job for nine years,” Luu adds. “We’re just ready to go back to project mode.” Possibilities include an ongoing podcast and a merch store.

Considering how many hyped and bigger-budgeted projects rose and fell during the pop-up’s nine-year run, it’s astonishing that Rice Paper Scissors endured as long as it did. “It’s just so expensive here,” Luu says. “We came to be during the climax of every crisis — the housing crisis, the commercial renting crisis. We existed the way we did for so long because we were a business inside another business inside another business.”

In the wake of those crises, the world of pop-ups that Luu and Kwan helped usher in gave them a “sure, why not” attitude that has particular echoes now, as laid-off chefs desperately try to stay afloat with home-cooked meal delivery services and Instagram-based takeout businesses. At the time they started, Luu and Kwan would simply walk down the street knocking on doors — not just those of restaurants, but of warehouses and random lots as well. They put in the groundwork, and after business owners saw what they were doing, it helped normalize this idea of sharing spaces with other businesses that wanted to grow.

Asked what Rice Paper Scissors was to them, Luu says, “Look, I want this on record. We are not Rock Paper Scissors. And there are no commas!” After a moment, though, she goes on: “We’re a celebration of Asian-American culture, a celebration of Asian food culture.”

Valerie Luu (left) and Katie Kwan, with a potted plant on top of a red stool
Valerie Luu (left) and Katie Kwan wanted Rice Paper Scissors to be a “red stool revolution”
Andria Lo

Kwan and Luu both say that cooking for Rice Paper Scissors was a way for them to express something about their identities, to celebrate their roots, and to share that with other folks who might be on the same journey. “We always say we were a red stool revolution,” Kwan says. “We just wanted to serve food and eat food on little red stools. Number one, that reminded us of Vietnam, but two, it just reminded us about sharing food and people being face-to-face and sharing stories and people finding common ground.”

Rice Paper Scissors never did become more than a pop-up. In 2017, Kwan and Luu signed the lease on a space in the Mission, only to have their dream of a full-blown restaurant thwarted by permitting issues and unexpected expenses. Despite huge hype and a successful Kickstarter, they wound up having to abandon the project a year later.

One of the most amazing things about Luu and Kwan is that through all of this — through stressful last-minute Lunar New Year celebrations and their brick-and-mortar restaurant plans falling through — they remain close friends. Kwan says Luu is “like the wind — she’ll lift you up and fill your sails.” About Kwan, Luu praises “her analytical thinking, she’s super-thoughtful, or even just thinking about what things mean — she’s someone that catches iridescence in light.”

At the end of that first pop-up I attended, I invited Kwan and Luu to come to the middle school where I teach to work on a culinary project for eighth graders. They agreed almost immediately. After that, they came once a year, every year, to show 14-year-olds how to wrap spring rolls and make dipping sauces. They never said no to coming back.

One class in particular stands out. That year, one of the boys in the project was Vietnamese, but had been adopted by a white family in Marin. Because this was middle school, he had some angst but also curiosity about his culture and heritage. He did not hide that he was adopted, but he also did not quite lean into his identity, either.

When Kwan and Luu came, though, he sat enraptured by them. Every move they would make, every fold of a spring roll, every stir of a sauce, his gaze held firm on them, soaking it up. He was not usually an active class participant, but now his voice came out clear; he asked questions, wanted to know more.

Later that night, his mom emailed me that meeting Kwan and Luu had left an immense impact on her son. He became more connected to his heritage. Kwan and Luu wound up staying in touch with the family, catering for them for events.

I think of that boy now, as I think about Kwan and Luu — Katie and Valerie — and about how their legacy goes far beyond a pop-up; instead, their influence persists even still in the hearts of those of us looking for connection even when we can’t firmly plant our roots in the ground.

If you’d like to try Luu and Kwan’s food one last time, they’re taking orders for what they’re calling their Hot 100 Bangers — a generous tray of food that includes Rice Paper Scissors classics like their beef pho rolls and their chicken cabbage salad, all priced at an auspicious $88. Customers have until the end of the day Thursday to pre-order for Sunday pickup at 2723 Oakdale Avenue. You can also buy a limited-edition Fish Sauce hat from them here.

Noah Cho is a teacher in the Bay Area and has written for Catapult, The Atlantic, NPR’s Code Switch, and Shondaland.

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