Back in January, 27-year-old social media manager Teena Thach started memorizing 30-second dances on TikTok with her boyfriend as a fun hobby. She tried to study what usually became popular on the app, but despite her deep knowledge of social platforms, nothing went viral. But in July, a friend and pop-up restaurant owner, Thai Ha, told her to come by Mangosteen, his new stand behind Phở Bắc in Chinatown. While Thach was there, Ha suggested she make a TikTok video in exchange for a discount.
That post — clips of the location, fried chicken, and frozen mangonada as Thach narrates — exploded, racking up thousands of views within two hours. Ha says Mangosteen saw a bump in sales after the video went live, and people showed them Thach’s feed while ordering. “She did it out of her good will,” he says. “[We’ll] take any positive impact we can during this time.”
As anyone reading headlines about TikTok will know, the app has been the source of some controversy. The Trump administration ordered that American downloads of the Chinese-owned TikTok be banned as of September 27 until the app had an American buyer, arguing that it represents a national security threat. Data collected by TikTok and apps like it “threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage,” the president wrote in an executive order in early August. A potential deal may grant partial ownership to Oracle and Walmart, but the app’s existence in the U.S. remains uncertain. A major Chinese newspaper, Global Times, called the deal “extortion.”
Despite the app’s tenuous future, Thach has been showcasing restaurants around Washington with an iPhone and a notepad in hand. The TikTok influencer, who is half Vietnamese and half Cambodian, grew up in the south end of Tacoma. She says her mother’s Vietnamese cooking taught her to love good food, as she was raised on dishes such as banh xeo, a Vietnamese crepe rolled in a spring roll and dipped in fish sauce, and cari gai served with french bread. “She’d [introduced me to] all these flavors and it taught me to try new things,” she says.
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Unlike Instagram food influencers, who tend to focus on the eye-popping look of certain dishes, Thach makes a point of highlighting a restaurant’s history and learning about the owner’s training and intentions. Food, she argues, is about more than what you eat: It’s about the complexities of history and culture. She focuses on small mom-and-pop shops, particularly those run by people of color and immigrants, who may lack corporate backing or extra cash flow to advertise their business and stay afloat during the pandemic. Most of the restaurants she sees get attention are expensive, so she tries to feature dishes that cost less than $30.
“Racism is at its highest in America, and many BIPOC restaurants are getting shut down because of the hate or people being nervous to eat their food,” Thach says. “I think food brings a lot of people together and brings us all to the table and makes us feel less divided.”
After getting referrals from friends and conducting online research, Thach explores new places on the weekends for the TikTok videos. She has dipped cheesy tacos in consomme at Birreria Tijuana, stirred a seafoam-green pandan coconut milk tea from 20 Oz Tea, and filmed the “secret” three-course Filipino menu Baon, which is available at downtown hotel restaurant Ben Paris Saturday and Sunday.
“I’ve lived here my whole life and never noticed this place!” reads one comment on her video for Wonton Noodle House in Edmonds. “I’ll be going & just forward[ed] to 10 people who live here too.”
That particular review featured the 10-year-old restaurant’s Hong Kong-style congee, beef chow fun, and wonton and beef brisket lo mein with soup — but the deep-fried wontons soared in popularity. “We saw 15 orders a day jump up to 70-plus orders,” says Cindy Yang, whose father, Wan Yang, owns the restaurant. “My father told me in Chinese, ‘Cindy, so many customers ordered the deep-fried wontons today and the kitchen staff almost went crazy!’”
At Melonseed Deli in Tacoma, owner Mac Charles says that business was already steady, with lines of 15 people waiting at peak times. But after Thach posted a video of the spot on TikTok, the line swelled out the door and around the corner. He estimated up to 100 people showed up for their spicy “spiked” tuna salad and massive Bahama Mama fruity pebble frozen yogurt, an effect that lasted for weeks.
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The week Thach posted about Baon, the weekends-only restaurant sold out of dishes like smoked salmon sinigang, garlic fried rice, and lumpia Shanghai. Its Instagram following grew by hundreds. Meanwhile, Coffeeholic House in Columbia City reported “lots of traffic” from the TikTok promotion, and Birreria Tijuana’s owner, Fredy Zavala, says his weekday customers looked like a weekend crowd after Teena dropped her video. While some of the restaurants reported doing okay during the pandemic, they were all grateful for the increase in foot traffic.
Thach never charges for her efforts, but some restaurants, like Wonton Noodle House and Baon, comp her orders. Other times she’s shown up to restaurants she loved unannounced, like Birreria Tijuana, and filmed without any prior planning — though she’s since realized it’s easier to get the full story if she emails the business before filming. Even with some prep, it takes four hours to edit a review into a one-minute clip.
TikTok became a restorative creative outlet for Thach during a time of incredible grief following the sudden loss of her dad to meningitis B in April. “He was in a coma for like 12 days, but during the pandemic we couldn’t even see him,” she says. “It was super traumatizing.”
She took a break from social media for a while before turning to TikTok, where the algorithm curated light-hearted posts on her feed. Now, hearing restaurant owners’ stories and expressing her creativity through reviews has offered some healing. Many of these restaurants are in her neighborhood, and she’ll stop in for a chicharron sandwich at Don Lucho’s or test out new dishes at Mangosteen. She still texts with some owners. They send her ideas for other restaurants to review. It feels like a community.
While the loss of TikTok to a government crackdown would be wildly disappointing, Thach says she has faith other social media platforms, like Instagram or something entirely new, would rise its place. She already posts her videos across multiple accounts, where her reviews sometimes take off even more than they do on TikTok.
Thach doesn’t seem to have any ambition to turn the account into a larger business, but she expresses a desire to “be a bigger influencer across all social media platforms,” including YouTube, where she has posted singing performances in the past.
No matter what, her primary mission right now remains the same: making TikTok videos that encourage Seattle diners to branch out and try new dishes and cuisines in spaces perhaps unfamiliar to them. When her audience doesn’t know what to order, she says she’ll be “a digital friend,” guiding them toward something delicious.