New & Notable: Sophina Uong

Owner/Chef | Mister Mao
Nn Sophinauong
Portraits by Greg Miles

Sophina Uong is not afraid of a challenge.

After years working in San Francisco’s best restaurants, winning “Grand Champion Grill Master” on the Food Network show “Chopped,” and managing a restaurant for famed chef Andrew Zimmern in Minneapolis, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Uong and her husband and partner, William Greenwell, opened Mister Mao in what had been the home of popular Uptown restaurant Dick & Jenny’s for more than two decades. The Cambodian American chef had only three weeks of operation before Hurricane Ida hit, wiping out thousands of dollars of food and pushing the old equipment inherited from the previous restaurant past its limit.

Almost a year later, Uong said she’s still struggling with staffing, but her adventurous culinary creations packed with strong flavors that she admits are “not for everyone” have created a following.

“We have a lot of regulars,” she said. “I think we’ve stayed busy not despite COVID but because of it. We’re a celebratory place. People come here to have fun.”

While she has hopes to soon have the staff to bring back the dim sum carts she introduced before the hurricane and get back to serving seven nights a week, Uong is focused not only on her own success, but on helping other local entrepreneurial chefs.

“I personally always love the opportunity to go into a new kitchen and cook, and I wanted Mister Mao to be a place where other chefs can do that,” said Uong. “So, I started inviting chefs with popups to come and cook once a week for a brunch or dinner. The proceeds from every guest popup are then given to whatever charity they choose.”