Soleil Ho Is (Still) Eating Their Feelings

soleil ho linocut portrait
Soleil Ho lincut portrait by Bruce Cole

A  lean, doe-faced hare is frozen in mid-scamper before a huge flamelike dahlia inked on Soleil Ho’s right deltoid, a reference to the place in the Chinese zodiac where Soleil, who uses they pronouns, is fixed by birth. A second banner of Soleil’s identity cuffs their forearm: the pervasive Chinese plate motif of scraggly chrysanthemums and white curls on a field of red framed in turquoise, a memory of the melamine bowls Soleil grew up slurping takeout noodles and Count Chocula from. Tonight the 34-year-old San Francisco Chronicle food critic, winner in June of the 2022 James Beard Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award, faces more noodles, more slurping. It’s Soleil’s first visit to Bodega, a month-old Vietnamese restaurant at the Tenderloin edge of Union Square, where pale, Nordic-presenting families in vacation shorts and new-looking sweatshirts trudge into the wind. I’m here too. Soleil has let me shadow them tonight.*

Though Soleil is officially anonymous here (our reservation is under a name other than Soleil Ho) they’re otherwise not hiding. In the three and a half years since succeeding Michael Bauer on Bay Area food’s loftiest platform, Soleil has asserted their presence by chucking over the edge most of the rules and assumptions stacked up at the Chron over Bauer’s 32-year reign. That includes starred reviews, the annual Top 100 Restaurants as a coronation of the Eurocentric and the connected, plus a focus that seemed limited to San Francisco, Napa, and Chez Panisse. And it includes the implausible fiction that, in a city with slightly fewer residents than Indianapolis—packed like an air fryer with high-stakes restaurants—a powerful tenured critic could ever really be faceless.

In March 2019, a week after Soleil’s first reviews dropped in the Chronicle, a profile appeared in the Washington Post. “Soleil Ho,” the headline ran, “is a young, queer woman of color who wants to redefine food criticism.” It’s a tag that’s stuck to Soleil as stubbornly as any tattoo, this identity that defined them for a national audience that had maybe never heard an episode of Racist Sandwich, the podcast Soleil and journalist Zahir Janmohamed produced between 2016 and 2019. (It’s still going, with different hosts.)

For better or worse, the Post’s headline branded Soleil with a mission: to be what was, at the start of 2019, food criticism’s only voice speaking from such a specific intersection of queerness and color, a lived experience of gender nuances, and big geek energy.

Soleil and Zahir used the podcast to push back on the “white supremacist, ableist, heteropatriarchal capitalist culture” of the nation’s restaurants and food media. But, Soleil asked from the 2019 XOXO Festival stage in Portland, Oregon, “what happens when you become the representation you’ve been fighting for?”

“Oh fuck,” they said, as the audience laughed and hooted. “It’s me?”

A lot of people wanted Soleil to succeed. Maybe just as many wanted them to fail.

“With rambling diatribes on cultural appropriation,” ran the title of a piece by Susan Dyer Reynolds in the Marina Times in 2019, “the San Francisco Chronicle’s Soleil Ho makes a mockery of food criticism.” 

 “Every day I feel pressure to be careful with my words,” Soleil continued in Portland. “To not disappoint anyone who sees a revolution in me. To fix a century of mistakes with my little weekly column. So many people are watching.”

Tonight at Bodega, a chef in a long black apron appears to drift casually past our table but makes a quick turn to cop a look at Soleil. Busted! I can feel the enormous pressure on Soleil, the weight of those watching eyes, as course after course of the chef’s tasting menu washes up on our table: oysters with yuzu coconut foam, carpaccio-like bo tai chanh, a whole branzino with turmeric and herbs.

“It’s so complicated,” Soleil says when I ask about that Washington Post headline that still clings. “You could be all these things and not change anything. And you could be all these things and be an extremely uninteresting writer, and that’s totally fine, you could still deserve to live”—an aside dusted with sarcasm, but it suggests the scale of Soleil’s ambition. Not only the monkey’s paw wish, as Soleil has called it, of challenging the establishment from the very platform once synonymous with whiteness, privilege, and power, but to perform a gut rehab of restaurant reviewing itself: to frame it anew and fill it with an empathy it’s never known.

Jonathan Gold at his best brought lyricism and a poignancy that lurked in places unknown to white people. Gold could trace, in the washed-out scene of a carne asada dive on Pico he’d once loved, the still-discernible scuff marks of a former life—he was a writer on place as much as on food. Soleil, it seems to me, is reaching for something else, perhaps more challenging: to expose, in the stories behind the food, the threads of need and emotion; as if considering what a restaurant serves, apart from the web of intention and struggle in which it’s suspended, is so reductive it distorts.

Soleil has gone from inhabiting a transformative identity in the once almost exclusively white world of restaurant criticism, to evolving a new dimension for food writing, one that recognizes dishes prepared by others as merely a way into understanding the world and our place in it. In an extraordinary July 2021 review of Lil Eagle Burger, a roving smashburger popup by Zach Fernandes, the burgers are only the emblem of a deeper humanity. Soleil moves from tasty burger to Fernandes’s chronic depression: his popups—the way he leans his whole body into smashing the patties on the griddle—are his way of publicly gesturing the dis-ease he can’t shake. Soleil doesn’t present a false comforting narrative (by giving us the cliché, for instance, that nurturing others is Fernandes’s cure), but allows the chef to exist suspended in this beautifully human ambivalence. We readers and consumers of Lil Eagle’s burgers become conspirators in the sad, delicious, inspiring, unsatisfying condition of being human. I’ve never read a food review like it.

Again and again, Soleil finds dignity, not in kitchen work per se, but in the expressiveness in the hands of the dumpling maker, the arepa artist, and the taquero; maybe even of the dishwasher. No surprise, if you trace the outline of Soleil’s life.

They’re the child of a refugee, in a family bound to a narrative of displacement. Soleil’s grandparents gathered up their seven kids (including Soleil’s mom, Francie) and fled the southern Vietnamese port city of Vũng Tàu in 1975, the year Saigon fell. They’d hoped to make it to Phú Quoc by boat but were intercepted by a warship and sent to a refugee camp. They immigrated to the U.S. at the invitation of a church in Freeport, Illinois, a town some 120 miles northwest of Chicago.

Francie went to college at the University of Illinois Chicago, studying fashion. She met a guy—a stylist in the family salon—and they married. They had Soleil and another girl but divorced when Soleil was eight. “They both worked a lot,” Soleil says, “and I think that was the thing.”

Francie moved to New York City with Soleil and their sister, chasing jobs in fashion. She became a buyer for catalogs: Spiegel, Newport News, Delia’s. The family cycled through apartments with year leases: in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn, including a couple of spots in Williamsburg before it was hipster central and the rents blew up. Francie had a lot of gay friends from the fashion world, and they’d babysit Soleil and their sister. “There was a guy named Hector who was from Puerto Rico. He’d watch cartoons with us and—this is so ‘90s New York—he would always say, ‘This is fabu!’ or, ‘That’s fabu!’”

Francie read Gourmet and Ruth Reichl in the New York Times and told Soleil stories about being invited to the Condé Nast cafeteria. “Even though my mom was—is—a refugee from Vietnam,” Soleil says, “through her work and social circles she developed a taste for restaurants.” She took the kids to Chinatown for dim sum on weekends. She loved Coffee Shop near Union Square, the battered diner where fashion people hung out, Francie and the kids munching shoestring fries and Cubano sandwiches and soaking up the scene.

 “It’s been really hard to have a parent who’s obviously cooler than me my whole life,” Soleil says. “It’s not like a Mommy Dearest situation, but she has always been very large in whatever social scene she’s found herself in. So me, being the biggest quiet nerd, often wearing the same T-shirt several days in a row… You know?”

 Once, when Soleil was 15, Francie needed to go to Paris for work and couldn’t find a babysitter so she dragged the kids along. “I remember going to a bistro,” Soleil says, “and not really getting it, because the food was so brown and heavy and not really interesting to me, a coq au vin that wasn’t that great. Like, ‘What is this?’” Soleil’s food epiphany happened when they were nine, visiting family in Vietnam. Soleil and their sister ordered banh khot, a specialty of Vũng Tàu: small, crisp-edged rice-flour pancake cups filled with shrimp. “It was so special,” Soleil says. “To have the thing our family would dream about, and reminisce about. Something we had never experienced firsthand and to finally have it.”

Soleil attended Stuyvesant, a prestigious public college prep in Lower Manhattan, and probably in their first week—freshman year—realized they were queer after making a new friend. “We would stay up on what was then 56k internet, on AOL Messenger, and just talk about everything. And she said, ‘You know, you’re probably not straight.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ You know how you’re like an octopus living in the woods for so long? And then you see the ocean, and you’re like, ‘Oh! That’s why! That’s why I’m a little…strange.’”

They experimented with how they presented: binding their chest, dressing masculine. “For some reason,” Soleil says, “I got the hugest thrill for being kicked out of the women’s fitting room at a store. For some reason, it made me so happy.”

At Grinnell, the liberal college in the shady wilds of Iowa, Soleil mostly took classes on revolutionary eras around the world. They played guitar in a punk band called White People Music—it’s how Soleil met their husband, Christopher Farstad, who was the band’s drummer. “He was the white people,” Soleil says. “The other two were Asians.” In 2009, graduating into the grim jobscape of the Great Recession, they flirted with culinary school and took a campus tour of Le Cordon Bleu. “I remember asking one of the students, ‘So how much training do you guys get on non-European food?’” Soleil says, with kind of a bitter laugh. “And they were like, ‘Oh, you know—a week.’” (All 16 nationwide Cordon Bleu campuses folded in 2015, after losing federal student aid funding for deceptive admissions practices.)

Soleil learned to cook instead by going to work in Minneapolis at the much-praised Grand Cafe, a French joint. They cooked in restaurants in New Orleans and Portland, and in 2016 moved to Puerto Vallarta, to help Francie open a restaurant called Bonito Kitchen. Soleil cooked pork belly bao, soy sauce chicken wings, shrimp summer rolls, and on Saturdays a noodle special: some weeks pho, some weeks ramen.

Back at Bodega, we’re on our penultimate course: bowls of deep-flavored ramen with silky fresh rice noodles. The server makes each of us say our favorite dish of the night, the chef—his black apron a little more smudged—sweeps through the dining room again and gets another look at Soleil. I’ve come to love the server, Pong (I checked the receipt later), and I feel for the chef, who has to be thinking that some ultimately inextinguishable piece of his fate is right now slurping on table 50. And while I probably shouldn’t even care what happens to a restaurant I’ll probably never show up to again, I find I have feelings for this place. I have no idea what Soleil will eventually say about Bodega, if they choose to write about it all. But I want them to surprise and amaze me with their take: to find the thread of a story here—find it everywhere they eat—and make me feel I’m better for knowing it. Soleil the ultimate nerd, ultimate outsider, ultimate queer, according to a definition of queerness by bell hooks: “the self at odds with everything around it, having to find a place to speak and thrive and live.” Soleil is the ultimate octopus, seeking their ocean.

In January 2020, on the eve of Covid changing the world, Soleil told the new hosts of Racist Sandwich that their goal that year was to win a Pulitzer in criticism. Their editor at the Chronicle had submitted their name for the prize. “I had this sense that it wasn’t allowed,” Soleil says. “Or it’s not for me; I wouldn’t get that. But just that they wanted to try was huge.” So far Jonathan Gold is the only restaurant critic who’s gotten a Pulitzer, in 2006. After my dinner at Bodega, I looked up past winners, and got lost in the remarks New York Times film critic Wesley Morris made after winning in 2021, when he defined what he tries to do with his writing.

“Criticism champions, condemns, X-rays, and roots out,” Morris said. “It explains and appraises and contextualizes. It also dreams and marvels and mourns. You need some kind of knowledge to do it, sure, and maybe (hopefully) some humor, but really—truly—you need feeling. You need feelings.”

Soleil Ho may never snag a Pulitzer—right now a James Beard Award seems vindication enough—but I do know they have feelings. Lots and lots of feelings. 

*For the record, I paid for my own meal.


John Birdsall is a writer and former restaurant critic for the East Bay Express, and what is now the East Bay Times. He’s the author of The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard (Norton), and lives in Tucson.  @john_birdsall

edible sf summer cover soleil ho

Also in this issue:

Third Rule of Dumpling Club: If the Team Wins, You Win.

A Summery Vegetarian Green Borshch from Ukraine

Andy Baraghani’s Juicy Tomatoes with Italian Chile Crisp

Do you read Eat.Drink.Think?