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A culinary pho-nomenon: The history of pho in Seattle

Photo courtesy of Pho Bac
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For the record, it’s pronounced ‘fuh’, not ‘foe’, and Seattleites cannot stop slurping up this herbaceous, Vietnamese noodle soup.

“It’s just on every corner. Every one-block radius has a pho shop,” says Yenvy Pham, co-owner of Pho Bac.

The soup is truly a Seattle pho-nomenon. The Washington Restaurant Association says there are 45 restaurants in Seattle with pho in their name and many more Vietnamese restaurants that serve it. To put that number into perspective, Seattle has 55 Starbucks.

Even un-adventurous eaters, who don’t know their dim sum from their doro wat, crave a dose of pho at the first sign of rain or a sniffly cold. It’s all about that aromatic beef broth, made with cinnamon, star anise, cloves, roasted ginger and onions. The tangle of slippery rice noodles and the paper thin, sliced meat. And each steaming bowl is served with a garnish plate of fresh basil, bean sprouts, lime and squeeze bottles of hot chili and hoison sauce.

But what is the history of pho in Seattle? How did Washington state grow to have the third largest Vietnamese population in the country, after California and Texas?

Well, it started in 1974 with Governor Dan Evans, after the Vietnam War with the fall of Saigon. A large number of Vietnamese immigrants were being held at Camp Pendleton in San Diego.

“I was listening to the radio and I heard governor Jerry Brown of California say he didn’t want any Vietnamese there,” Governor Evans told me. “I was just furious. Stormed over to my office ready to tell my staff we gotta do something and they were already furious about it. We sent a young aide in my office, he later was Secretary of State for 20 years, Ralph Monroe. We sent him down to Camp Pendleton and he called me back and said, ‘Governor, you’d be amazed at the kind of people that are here. They’re professionals and all sorts of very talented people.’ I said, ‘Invite them to come and settle in Washington state.’ And we did.”

Six thousand Vietnamese came up in the first wave, and many more eventually followed.

In 1982, Seattle’s first pho restaurant, Pho Bac, opened on the corner of Rainier and Jackson, where it still stands today. Yenvy Pham and her siblings now run the four Pho Bac locations, but her dad and mom opened the first shop.

“When [my mom] first opened it was called Cat Submarine. She thought, ‘Americans like subs.’ During the weekend crowd, you had the Vietnamese people come in and they would say, ‘We want something soupy’ and ‘It’s so cold here.’ So she started making pho on the weekends only. The next thing you knew, pho was outselling the sandwiches.”

So she went all pho all the time and changed the name to Pho Bac. The family would open a pho shop, then sell it to a family member or friend, then open another and do the same.

“My parents were also really involved in sponsoring people over,” said Yenvy. “They were really active in the community and people saw how they were doing and they just started opening. This is how the trend is, especially with Asians. We just see one thing is doing well and we’re gonna copy it.”

Seattle’s Taylor Huong opened Pho Cyclo in 2001. After a successful career in real estate and mortgage, she found herself desperately missing her mom’s pho one rainy Seattle afternoon.

“When my mom makes a pot of pho, the whole village would descend on our home,” said Taylor. “She would hand slice the meat, she makes her own ginger sauce for dipping with lemon pickled onions.”

All of which Taylor serves at her restaurants. She shares the soup’s history:

“Pho originated from north Vietnam, in a very small town called Nam Din. It started, I think, in 1906. It was a result of when the French colonized Vietnam. Before that, Vietnamese didn’t really eat beef. Beef was seen more as an animal of labor. But when the French colonized they started to slaughter cows. Then Vietnamese were reusing the leftover parts, including the bones and the tendons. They couldn’t really make a meal out of it so they decided to make a soup.”

Both Taylor and Yenvy’s parents came to Seattle to escape Saigon. Yenvy’s sister was born in a jail cell, after their mom was caught trying to flee.

“They did four attempts to get out of Saigon,” said Yenvy. “Finally they did, to Thailand. From Thailand they went to the Philippines. Spent two years in a refugee camp and then flew over to Seattle.”

Taylor’s father came to Seattle when she was a baby, and it took seven years to get her and her mother over to the states.

“When we first arrived she was put on government assistance,” Taylor explained. “And she was on it for like three or six months and she said, you know, this wasn’t for me. So she went out and she got three different jobs.”

Today, both women serve their mother’s pho recipes. And they sell an awful lot of soup.

“On average, between all the stores, 700 bowls a day,” Taylor said.

I told Governor Evans that he’s the one who ultimately brought pho to Seattle. And he’s never lost his connection to the Vietnamese immigrants he brought to our state. Two months after his official welcome, Governor Evans got a call. One of the immigrant families had their 6th child.

“And named him Evans. Evans Nguyen. We got to know the family and we have been in close touch with them ever since.”

Five out of the six children were valedictorian of their high schools and all of those children graduated from the University of Washington. Evans says they’ve made our state a better place.

“Except for Native Americans, all of us are immigrants. It was an open invitation to make this country stronger by it’s immigrants, not by keeping them out.”

A pho-nomenal ending to a story about Seattle’s favorite soup.

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