Cafe HaHa's, 266 Brunker Road, Adamstown. Open Mon-Fri 6.30am to 2pm and Sat-Sun 7am to 1pm.
Maria Ha had big plans for 2020.
At the start of the year she left her full-time job in hospitality with the intention of opening a restaurant to share her mother Diem's much-loved Vietnamese dishes. Things changed with COVID-19 and her vision came to a sudden halt.
"I was in the process of looking for a site but then COVID happened, so we put that on hold because we just weren't sure what was going to happen," Ha says. "After a month or two I said, 'I can't really not do anything while we wait this out' so we decided that we would hire a commercial kitchen and that's where we started HaHa's Eatery."
HaHa's Eatery operated out of the Merewether Uniting Church Hall every Friday and Saturday night as a pre-order takeaway pop-up where they gained a following of regulars. It was the easiest way to manage the business without making a huge investment, while also getting the name HaHa's - and the food - out there.
HaHa's Eatery operated throughout lockdown, serving home-style Vietnamese dishes cooked by Ha and her mum. In November, Ha found a permanent site in Adamstown to open Cafe HaHa's. It wasn't exactly the restaurant space she had mapped out in her mind but the opportunity to take over the cafe (previously Little Brown Wolf Espresso) on Brunker Road felt like the right move.
The menu is a mix of Australian-style cafe breakfasts and light meals such as avocado smash, blueberry pancakes and acai bowls, along with Vietnamese options for lunch. Opening a cafe also allows Ha to share her passion for great coffee, serving beans from Gateshead-based roasters Josie Coffee.
Weekday lunches include rice paper rolls with either pork, chicken or tofu; and three varieties of banh mi (delicious crunchy bread rolls filled with a choice of lemongrass beef and house-made pate; coconut chicken with house-made pate; or sautéed seitan, all with buttery mayo, coriander, pickled carrot and cucumber).
On weekends, the menu expands to offer home-made spring rolls; banh mi sliders; lemongrass beef and coconut chicken Vietnamese rolls; and HaHa's signature vermicelli noodles served with spring rolls and a choice of grilled pork, lemongrass beef, or grilled seitan and tofu.
Ha has applied to change the cafe's license in order to trade for dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings.
"We would like to keep it quite exclusive because the whole thing with HaHa's Eatery was we never pre-made anything. It was all made fresh," Ha says.
"We did a pre-ordering model to make sure it was using the freshest ingredients possible. We also wanted to avoid food waste as well in case we didn't sell out. We will run with a limited number of items on the menu to ensure we are offering 110 per cent in every dish we do."
Dinner service will also make room for the return of HaHa's popular pho.
"My Mother does a proper 10-hour stew for the broth. You can make it in two hours but it's not the same," Ha says. "Some of our dishes are street food but if you think of Vietnam, most businesses operate downstairs at that person's house. It's like being in someone's home, so it's more home-style food. We are not a polished brand. We are very authentic and are not trying to be perfect in any way."
The Vietnamese dishes on the menu at HaHa's celebrate decades of kitchen experience for Diem, who Ha says found her way into kitchens at events such as weddings as a young girl in Vietnam. After settling in Australia, she ran a restaurant in Cabramatta and passed on her passion for food to Maria. She is now in the kitchen at Cafe HaHa's.
"I have always wanted to share her food. I am so absolute in terms of where I eat Vietnamese because you can't help but compare the food and think, 'Hmmm, Mum kind of does that better. Why am I paying for this?'," Ha laughs. "We think there is a massive opportunity for Vietnamese food in Newcastle."