When the groundbreaking Forage restaurant in SLC closed some seven years ago, no one correctly guessed Viet Pham’s trajectory. The molecular gastronomy influenced restaurant was a one of a kind for Utah; even today, few have attempted to emulate what Pham and co-owner Bowman Brown intricately crafted over their six year plating span. Awards rained down on the restaurant, but so did the toll of the intricacies of putting out an almost nightly tasting menu.
After their much lauded run at Forage came to an end in 2016, many expected Pham’s adventure to continue in the fine dining tradition. Instead the foams and gels were tossed aside for makeup and mic – the chef becoming an ever increasing presence on the Food Network. In recent years, his repeated besting of Bobby Flay has seen him become something of a staple on the culinary channel.
Still, many locals predicted it only a matter of time before Pham returned to town – sous vide and spherification kit under arm. The reality couldn’t have been more different. The byzantine complexities of Forage’s raised d’être had become punishing; the tweezers, the stories, the convoluted process of crafting an intricate and nightly tasting menu. While many see a Michelin-beckoning menu as the apex of dining, the daily demands had simply tarnished the luster. Many balked at the $89 sticker price for the duo’s menu – I remember counseling just how lucky SLC diners had it at the time.
Pretty Bird hatched out of the blue for many onlookers, but the transition was an easy one for Pham. An opportunity to return to something simpler, something more accessible and let’s just say it – fun. The restaurant which specializes in Nashville-style hot chicken immediately garnered a cult following via social media; this in turn translating to lines down Regent Street in Downtown SLC. Locations in Sugar House, Park City and Midvale followed along in subsequent years.
So what’s next? When I sat down to lunch several weeks ago with the chef, his update surprised even me. And more than that, it got me all a little hot under the collar too. I know, I know, I’m like that. Pham’s nebulous idea for the next adventure started as a pure play barbecue concept. Pham being Pham though, the idea quickly took on richer detail. His Midwest youth would be the transformative icing on a promising looking cake.
In an interview with Tasting Table, Pham talked about the influence, “growing up in Illinois, one of my favorite things to eat every Friday with my family was Portillo’s. I thought, ‘What if I do something similar to Portillo’s?”
The iconic Italian beef was the natural jumping off point for a possible fusion of BBQ and traditional sandwiches. A centerpiece of the planned operation would see the classic composition of slow braised beef with peppers given a whole new lease of life via the smoker. From there? Maybe other archetypes, pork and chicken and turkey, but with ember fueled twists. The possibilities are endless; a classic club remade with more thought than the hotel lobby? A smoke kissed schnitzel with a gourmet edge? Those last two my own suggestions – insert your imagination here.
The working name for the new business right now is Pretty Q, and those that are familiar with Pham’s critical attention to detail will want to follow along as the story develops. For all the apparent easing up in transitioning from fine dining to QSR – tremendous care goes into everything under his watch at Pretty Bird. Take the seemingly humble chicken sandwich that the chef has spent the last few years iterating – even the minutiae of the spice blend has seen endless reworking.
“One of the challenges we faced, how do we get an even application of that blend onto the chicken?”, Pham recounts to me. “Each component in the spice blend has a differing particle size, a different weight. The individual ingredients fall at disparate rates. In our earlier days we’d find that as a shaker came to an end, certain elements would outweigh others. Sandwiches might then differ – spicier, saltier, sweeter.” The result? A meticulous evolution of the recipe and process, team members now required to perform a special series of pats, shakes, and flourishes to ensure even distribution. While it might sound eccentric in isolation, it’s just one considered calculation amongst many. Everything from the sourcing of chicken (specially ordered at increased costs to ensure precise portion sizes) through to the use of high end pressure fryers are all in place to ensure that the experience is uniform and replicable for each guest.
The thought of that level of quality control applied to an Italian Beef (hi there fans of The Bear) – and smoked to boot – let’s just say I’m giddy. Before you get carried away with me though, and begin considering whether you want your sandwich dipped or wet, the plan for now remains one in progress. In our conversation Pham confirmed that the business could have already opened as early as last Fall, if it weren’t for the multiple challenges facing the industry right now: staffing, pricing, inflation, and more.
For the moment, Pham continues to evolve recipes in private while keeping a keen an eye on the local business environment. Watch this space, we might have another great sandwich shop in our midst very soon.
Featured image courtesy of the Salt Lake Tribune and our content sharing partnership.
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Hi, I’m Stuart, nice to meet you! I’m the founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC. I’m a multiple-award winning journalist and have written in myopic detail about the Salt Lake City dining scene for the better part of seventeen years.
I’ve worked extensively with multiple local publications from Visit Salt Lake to Salt Lake Magazine, not least helped to consult on national TV. Pause those credits, yep, that’s me! I’m also a former restaurant critic of more than five years, working for the Salt Lake Tribune. I’m largely fueled by a critical obsession with rice, alliteration and the use of big words I don’t understand. What they’re saying about me: “Not inaccurate”, “I thought he was older”, “I don’t share his feelings”.
Want to know more? This is why I am the way I am.
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