On a busy Saturday afternoon at the Beaverton Farmers Market, Aaron Truong and his wife Natalie are busy rolling out dough, slathering marinara sauce and selling whole pizzas under their Hapa Pizza awning.
The word “hapa” comes from the native Hawaiian definition of “half”. In the modern sense, it most often refers to someone who identifies as half Asian or Pacific Islander and half white, but in Hawaii it is used to refer to anyone of mixed race. And Aaron thinks that’s the perfect way to describe his modern take on pizza.
“We’re taking elements from both of these cultures that have influenced us and bringing them together to create something new,” says Aaron.
While Natalie takes orders from customers at the front table, Aaron and three staff members, all friends and family, operate three small pizza ovens out back, with the goal of baking multiple pies as quickly as possible. possible.
Their most popular menu item is pizza phở. It’s topped with ingredients normally found in the iconic Vietnamese soup, including bean sprouts, Thai basil, braised beef brisket, and a special house sauce.
“It’s a reduced phở broth that we were able to thicken to the consistency of the sauce,” says Aaron. “The brisket is cooked slowly in the broth so it absorbs most of the flavor.”
Hapa Pizza serves other Asian-inspired dishes, all of which are Farmers Market favorites.
“We have a Korean barbecue pizza that takes Gochujang-flavored marinated spicy pork belly that’s grilled and kimchi cucumbers that give you a cool, refreshing flavor,” he says. “We are making banh mi pizza with marinated daikon and radishes. So there’s that fresh crunch with lemongrass marinated pork.
In 2019, Aaron started making pizza as a hobby after buying an oven on a whim.
“My wife was mad at me for spending $500 on a pizza oven,” he laughs.
They threw a party for friends and, as an experiment, served pizza topped with bulgogi, Korean marinated beef.
It was an instant hit. Truong’s friends suggested the couple try selling the bulgogi pizza at a local farmers’ market.
That’s when the idea came up to top the pizza with even more Asian ingredients, like galbi, Korean-style marinated ribs.
“Bulgogi, galbi, pho. All the things we grew up eating and loved to eat. And so when it came time to top the pizzas with whatever we wanted, it kind of seemed like a no-brainer,” he says.
Fast forward to 2020 and Aaron’s realization that his passion for cooking was quickly becoming an outlet to explore his childhood struggles with Asian identity.
Aaron, whose father is Chinese from Vietnam and mother is from Taiwan and moved to the United States when he was 17, grew up learning about Asian and American cultures and cuisines.
While living in Lake Oswego in the early 2000s, he said he often felt like he couldn’t relate to his friends and family.
“My mom had her Chinese friends and their kids and I felt like I didn’t really fit in with them and then I didn’t really fit in with the white kids at school. So I felt really alone for a lot of high school.
Incidents of racism and discrimination compounded her sense of loneliness.
“When people came and made fun of the way my mom talked or the way our house smelled, it really made me feel different,” he says. “I actually tried to minimize or hide my Asianness. I would try to act as non-Asian or anti-Asian as possible just to try to belong.
Aaron then went to college and spent time with other Asian Americans. It was then that he finally felt connected to his roots and discovered that he wasn’t necessarily just Asian or just American; he is both.
“I realized there was this alternate subculture where it’s a hybrid of elements from both cultures, and it felt like home right away,” he says.
He applied this idea to Hapa Pizza. By adding Asian ingredients to a beloved American dish like pizza, Truong has created a dish that is neither all-American nor all-Asian; it is a hybrid, combining the best of both.
“I grew up eating mostly Asian food. My wife is a fourth-generation Asian American, so she grew up eating a lot of American food. And that just seemed like a natural byproduct of our history. he says.
Thanks to the growing popularity of Hapa Pizza, Aaron is able to connect with other Asian Americans in the community in ways he never could when he was younger.
“Richard Văn Lê de Matta, Mama Dút, Portland Ca Phe, HeyDay Donuts, all those people who have become our friends. It was so uplifting to be around other Asian Americans who were leading in their own way,” he says.
Lisa Nguyen is the owner of HeyDay Donuts. Like Hapa Pizza, it uses Asian fusion cuisine to explore and celebrate its heritage.
“We were taught to assimilate into Western American culture. I love all of that too, but we were never taught to celebrate that other side of our culture and be excited about the food we grew up on,” she says. “Now we’re able to do that on a massive scale and I think that’s something that a lot of us probably lacked as Asian Americans.”
She credits Hapa Pizza for showing that there is a space for Asian Americans to educate and share their culture through food.
“I know Aaron and Natalie love what they do,” she says. “They have a huge setup they have to do at the farmers market, and yet they’re selling out and that keeps us going.”
Aaron is now taking the next steps to build a permanent brick and mortar location in Beaverton. He and his family already have roots in the community, and Aaron preferred the western suburbs of Portland due to its established Asian American population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian Americans make up about 13% of Beaverton’s approximately 97,000 residents.
“When you think of Metro Portland, it’s either in the Southeast or Beaverton which has a decent amount of Asian Americans,” he says. “We really want it to reflect who we are and one of our values is community and rootedness.”
“What makes Hapa Pizza different is why it has become so popular and the thing I was once ashamed of is what we are most proud of now. It is our distinct Asian identity,” says- he.