Have you “ThaiPopped”?

If you didn’t have a chance to experience a ThaiPop pop-up dinner pre-pandemic, you can now “ThaiPop” with a brown bag to go.

Ryan and Annie Balow said last week that despite the state restaurant shutdown, business is booming for their new takeout operation. They had over 100 preorders for the week (Wednesday through Friday), no small feat for their small team of four.

“We are no longer able to take more takeout orders because of the overwhelming and high volume,” Ryan said April 21, a day before they started preparing takeout meals for the week.

The shift from pop-up dinners to takeout orders came about during the rapidly evolving COVID-19 situation. The Balows had just started working on new menus inspired by their culinary adventures in Thailand when Gov. Tim Walz announced the shutdown to slow the spread of the virus.

“We were watching the news at Grand Rounds,” Ryan said, “and that night, we decided we wanted to rebrand to takeout, so we immediately started working on it.”

That following Monday, from the same kitchen they’d been using (in the basement of Grand Rounds Brewing downtown), with a small menu of five items, they completed their first night as a takeout operation. Customers ordered online and picked up their orders at the restaurant.

“Our menu had been focused on small plates and multiple courses, so we had to change to a larger format to make sure we were delivering a complete, filling, to-go meal,” Ryan explained.

Although the Balows had served pad Thai in the past, the shift to takeout gave them the opportunity to make a big splash bringing it back. Annie and cook Phouvong Laanonh head up the effort in the kitchen, which they split with Grand Rounds staff to keep a safe distance.

ThaiPop’s new pastry chef, Pat Anderson, is also making light, fluffy Japanese cheesecake, with a powdered-sugar dusting displaying the words “Thai Pop” with a tiny white elephant.

“We emailed everyone who already had reservations, because we already had two weeks of reservations set” at the time, Ryan said. “People were really disappointed, but a few of them ordered takeout right away. They just had their ‘date night’ at home with our takeout instead.”

The first night was a challenge, but the team quickly adapted, with a few tips from their Grand Rounds kitchen neighbors. For every night since, they’ve had to shut off their online-ordering system to limit their total orders, so they can continue to provide the freshest food possible.

Ryan said Annie recently received a call from a takeout customer in tears (happy tears!). He said hers was the best pad Thai — the best meal — he’d ever had.

“We feel so fortunate to be able to continue operating during such a tough time,” Anne said Tuesday afternoon, confirming that another week of preorders had sold out. “We are really grateful for all the support we’ve received.”

Pre-pandemic

Before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Rochester, the Balows were operating a “micro restaurant” in the basement of Grand Rounds Brewing (in a space called Marrow) downtown every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night. Their dinner events quickly spiked in popularity.

Those with a taste for Thai food would reserve a coveted spot at each dining event, then be treated to a seven-course authentic Thai meal (with a few creative twists) from Chef Annie.

During these pop-up dinners, guests filled the “restaurant inside a restaurant,” with soft music playing in the background to encourage them to chat among themselves. The vibe was that of an intimate dinner party.

On Tuesday, March 3, just a week before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, Sarmita Chakraborty, a ThaiPop fan who lives in Rochester, was one of those special guests.

Chakraborty praised the food, which that night included items such as fried green papaya, garlic and white-pepper shrimp, rice noodle salad, and more, describing it as “hands down the best Thai food I’ve ever had.”

“Chef Anne’s dishes were imaginative, bursting with subtle flavors and just superb,” she wrote in her Facebook post about the culinary experience.

The Balows are hoping to resume their pop-up dinners, which they started doing out of their apartment in 2017, as soon as it’s safe to do so. For now, with their takeout operation taking off, they’re going with the flow and keeping Rochester bellies happily full, one carefully packaged order at a time.

“We’re fortunate,” Ryan said. “I know a lot of restaurants are struggling to be busy right now. Our customers are helping us maintain our goals, and we’re learning a lot from the experience.”

More information

  • To learn more about ThaiPop, visit its website (www.thaipopmn.com) or Facebook page (www.facebook.com/thaipopbyannie). There, you’ll find photos, videos and stories from Ryan and Annie Balow’s winter trip to Asia, a visually stunning culinary experience in itself.

  • To order, visit www.toasttab.com/ThaiPop. The ThaiPop team can only make a set number of takeout orders a day, so order ahead to claim a spot. The menu changes weekly, but it always includes pad Thai. Orders can be picked up between 4:30 and 7 p.m. Wednesday through Friday at Grand Rounds.