After 4 decades, the Phams are still the first family of phở in Seattle – The Seattle Times

There aren’t many phở shops unique enough to make you want to take a selfie. Most focus entirely on the steaming bowls of soup instead of the surroundings. For 40 years, the Pham family’s original Phở Bắc in Little Saigon — which the family claims is Seattle’s first phở restaurant — was no different. The red and white building colloquially known as “The Boat” stands out thanks to the iconic boat that hangs off the front. (In case you always wondered, it’s a leftover float attachment from a 2004 Vietnamese Catholic parade.) But for the longest time, the interior consisted of a scruffy dining room with chipped tile flooring, random strings of twinkle lights and a letter board menu. 
Generic, nondescript … except for a blurb on the letter board that read: “Welcome to the best phở in town … Maybe, don’t know, really who cares, just eat it.
It hinted at the people behind the soup — the Pham family. They’re funny and laid-back, their restaurants cultivate a vibe that’s difficult to describe but easy to feel. You know them from Phở Bắc, but also from their coffee shop Hello Em, their bar Phởcific Standard Time and from Instagram-worthy bowls of short rib phở. For decades, they’ve been Seattle’s first family of phở. But ask second-generation restaurateurs and sisters Yenvy and Quynh-Vy Pham to describe the vibe their family has cultivated, and it boils down to one thing: “We’re not pretentious,” Yenvy says.
The experience of eating at their restaurant is centered on their mother’s advice to “always spoil your customer a little bit” and that is once again the goal when the original Phở Bắc reopens with a new concept on Oct. 20 after a long pandemic hiatus, 40 years to the day it first opened in 1982.
But spoiling a customer a little bit is the easy part. Dialing in a vibe and carving out a niche? That takes time and experience. So where does the magic come from? How did the Phams cultivate an atmosphere that has made Phở Bắc one of Seattle’s most beloved phở spots since it first opened?
It all began when Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham opened Cat’s Submarine Sandwich Shop in 1982.
The Pham family came to Seattle in October 1980, sponsored by Theresa’s sister. They had been living in a refugee camp in the Philippines for just under a year after fleeing Saigon because of the Sino-Vietnamese War. In Vietnam, Theresa and Augustine were “jacks of all trades,” Yenvy says of her parents, always entrepreneurial, running everything from a coffee shop to a bicycle tire repair and manufacturing store.
When they first settled in Seattle, Theresa worked at a sandwich shop and Augustine worked at the now-closed Pike Place Market bakery A La Francaise, while saving money to start another business. After hearing about a Japanese insurance office for sale at the edge of the Chinatown International District, the family bought it — without any credit or even a checking account — with help from their friends.
“I don’t think they ever thought about opening a Vietnamese restaurant. They wanted to just open something that was theirs,” Yenvy says.
“They weren’t sure Americans could eat their food,” Quynh-Vy adds.
Outside of restaurant life, Theresa and Augustine were big entertainers, often hosting parties for their community of fellow Vietnamese immigrants and serving up traditional dishes — including phở.
“Phở is a really big deal at home [in Vietnam]. It’s a special dish and it takes like 10 hours to make. Now it’s available everywhere, but growing up it was a special-occasion dish,” Quynh-Vy says.
Members of the Vietnamese community in Seattle were eager to support the Phams, but they kept asking for phở, not sandwiches. Theresa called friends in Vietnam to refine her recipe, double-checking ingredients and quantities — phở was not something she made before moving to the U.S. — and began first serving it at the restaurant on weekends.
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They were the only restaurant selling phở at the time, the sisters say, so demand exploded, and lines were often out the door.
“Every Sunday you go to church, go eat phở with your family and then go grocery shopping for the week,” Quynh-Vy says, remembering a time when it seemed everyone from their Vietnamese Catholic church would head to Phở Bắc after church.
The weekend scene at the restaurant — and elsewhere in the neighborhood becoming known as Little Saigon — was electric. Demand for phở far outweighed the demand for sandwiches, and after only four months the family switched over to making phở full time.
Soon it wasn’t just the Vietnamese community slurping fragrant bowls of phở. And if the restaurant was busy and you came alone? Theresa and the staff would seat you next to strangers — a “one big, happy restaurant” vibe.
It didn’t matter if you weren’t a part of the community — and vice versa, the sisters talk about how welcoming Seattle has always felt — Quynh-Vy calls it a “foodie city that loves to try new things.” Plus, the dreary winter days make phở cravings a no-brainer.  
“Phở is comforting, approachable, fast. There’s the flexibility of eating alone or in a group, it’s a one-dish wonder. It fulfills a lot of requirements in a person,” Yenvy adds.
Demand for phở grew and, in 1989, the family began slowly adding locations far — downtown and Rainier Valley — and near — the opposite end of the parking lot, in a space that originally housed Damm Fine Printing, a small printing shop owned by Peter Damm. 
As their business grew, so did the family. Theresa and Augustine had five children: Quynh-Vy, Tuvy, Uyenvy, Khoa and finally Yenvy, the baby.
The city was changing — Phở Bắc was no longer the only spot for phở, so when Damm offered to sell the Phams his building as he neared retirement, they jumped at the chance. Not only did it come with a parking lot, it was an opportunity to eliminate potential competition. They opened another phở restaurant with a slightly larger menu and named it Phở Việt.
The kitchen at Phở Việt was larger, and soon helped service the original restaurant. If someone ordered spring rolls at Phở Bắc, they would be made at Phở Việt with servers running between restaurants to deliver the order. The two restaurants also shared a debit card machine, causing even more server traffic between them.
The Phams kept growing their business, owning six restaurants at their peak. But Theresa and Augustine never pressured their kids to join the family restaurant business. Instead, they insisted each child go to college and study whatever they wanted.
“They wanted us to be doctors, lawyers, dentists,” Yenvy says.
Sisters Tuvy and Uyenvy are now doctors. Quynh-Vy has a finance degree, Yenvy holds degrees in economics and Spanish. Their brother Khoa, who died suddenly of a heart attack in April 2021, had an economics degree.
There was no defining moment when Quynh-Vy, Yenvy and Khoa decided to take over the family restaurant business. “Our parents needed help and we were available,” Quynh-Vy says. With the three siblings running things, it gave avid gardeners Theresa and Augustine an opportunity to step back slowly, spending more time gardening and less time running the restaurants. By the time Quynh-Vy took over bookkeeping in 2006, she says she and her siblings were “just all in.”
In 2012, the family opened the since-closed Denny Triangle location, and Theresa and Augustine handed over operations to Quynh-Vy, Khoa and Yenvy. This was their chance to capitalize on what their parents had built and begin to mix traditional flavors with modern trends. 
The Denny restaurant had exposed brick walls and strings of bistro lights. The metal chairs were a friendly, banana yellow and the beer list was written in chalk on a pillar painted with chalkboard paint.
It was still casual, but a bit hipper than the scruffiness of The Boat. The siblings worked well together as business partners: “We’re very close,” Quynh-Vy said. “All the girls lived together like a sorority house until recently. A lot of decisions were made through everyday conversation.”
In 2017, Khoa pitched an idea to turn Phở Việt into something new. He was managing the original location and Phở Việt and noticed the neighborhood was changing. He felt the building Phở Việt occupied wasn’t being maximized.
“At that point, our downtown location was so successful, I think it was just a good time for us to think about modernizing what our parents had started,” Yenvy says.
So they revamped Phở Việt and reopened it as Súp Shop in January 2018, complete with a jungle’s worth of greenery, bumping music and the giant selfie-worthy neon “Phởcific Northwest” sign that anchors one huge wall of a window-filled sunroom.  
Even with a city awash in phở shops, Seattle showed up for Súp Shop and its perfect blend of traditional and modern. Diem Nguyen of Tony’s Deli supplied the Chinese doughnuts — as she has since the beginning — there was a (now closed) natural-wine shop, shots served with a side of phở broth and fries smothered in pate phở gravy and minced brisket. The star of the menu was a decadent short rib phở with its iconic oversized rib bone. 
When Súp Shop opened, they closed the original Phở Bắc for renovations, reopening on New Year’s Day 2020. Then the pandemic hit and whirled everything into a tailspin. The family closed The Boat and let friend Thai Ha run his Mangosteen 206 fried chicken pop-up business there for a year.
As the pandemic unfolded, the family took advantage of the weaker demand for commercial leases and branched out again.
Their next project was Hello Em, a sleek Vietnamese coffee shop that opened in January 2021. Later that year they opened another Phở Bắc with a hidden bar, called Phởcific Standard Time.
Yenvy originally campaigned for another coffee shop. “We are not bar people, we are fast casual,” she says, laughing — but her siblings weren’t convinced. Additionally, the space had a large loft complete with steep stairs not conducive to running hot bowls of soup up, so using the space as extra seating for a phở shop was out of the question.
“It was a lawsuit waiting to happen. So Khoa was very adamant, let’s do a bar,” Quynh-Vy says.
The siblings were determined to open a Vietnamese bar — complete with Vietnamese rice lagers, spirits and drinking snacks. But it took a while for them to build the bar into something that lived up to their vision. 
“We wanted something approachable, fun, kind of like who we are. Not a pretentious vibe. And it had that vibe in the beginning,” Quynh-Vy says.
Now, with a primarily Vietnamese staff, the bar finally feels like what they set out to build, “I think Khoa would be really happy with how it turned out,” Yenvy says.” It really is for us, by us. We’re having fun.”
Next, the sisters have set their sights back on where it all began: The Boat. The family has always been nostalgic for first years of Phở Bắc, when the neighborhood felt like a hub, the restaurant had lines out the door and their mom sat strangers next to each other to make sure no seat went unfilled.
Yenvy says they’d like the re-imagined restaurant to pay homage to that original concept: a place that serves one (very popular) dish, with strangers mingling for a quick meal.
When the original Phở Bắc reopens next Thursday, its name will now formally be “The Boat.” It’s been repainted pink, with a new patio, and a pristine white interior with comfortable booths, a small bar, blond wood tabletops and a television and microphone for karaoke.
The Boat’s “one-dish wonder” is a traditional Vietnamese street food dish with a spin: pressure-fried chicken, dredged in fish sauce and rice flour, encrusted in fried garlic, served with a chrysanthemum and chayote salad, rice and soup for $18. For dessert, a pandan waffle with a coconut cloud.
“It’s chicken and waffles — but you don’t eat them together,” Quynh-Vy clarifies.
Decades from the family’s first opening and a half-dozen restaurants later, Seattle has fully bought into the magic the Phams create with their brand of Vietnamese food. And while the goal is to reopen The Boat and serve up a Vietnamese chicken not sold anywhere else in the city, the siblings also hope to help reinvigorate a section of Little Saigon that has suffered during the pandemic. 
“The area needs to be activated to change the feel, the vibe of the neighborhood. People think it’s scary here but it’s not scary. I walk these streets all day,” Quynh-Vy says.
To help entice people to The Boat (as if the fried chicken isn’t enough), they’ve added a covered, heated patio. “We envision a bustling outdoor space. It needs to happen here, it’s the perfect space for it,” Yenvy says.
It’s a full circle moment for the sisters, another chance to pay homage to tradition while also looking ahead at what’s to come.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.

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