by Gary Carter (part of the New Beginnings series focusing on my observations as I make the Northwest my new home)
It should not come as a surprise that crossing the Columbia will still find a host of family run restaurants, scratch-making everything, all with an eye toward local or sustainability.
And for many in the Portland area, once you find your pho place, you are loyal and you dive into the intricacies of their dishes. Because in authentic Vietnamese food, the difference of a few miles from where the cook or owner hails can be seen and tasted in the food.
But in this age of authenticity, this return to farm-to-table, this time of value in good, rustic food; it is a bright spot to see a real mom and pop commit to their culture and cuisine.
In Vancouver, on the busy Mill Plain Boulevard, one family is doing it right. And when we say mom and pop, that’s literally what is going on here at Pho Thanh.
Ming Huynh Bui, and his wife Tuyet Lan, met as refugees, packed in boats fleeing Vietnam during the war in 1975. He had fought against the North Vietnamese, alongside the Americans, early in the war and was captured and sent to the “re-education camps.” Five years later, he was released and found himself behind the wheel of a boat headed for Thailand. She had found a way to get herself the same direction. After a church sponsor helped the couple get to America, they married and settled in California.
The couple had three daughters. Linda Bui is one of them. She said that her father Ming worked odd jobs, with mom usually staying home to take care of the girls. After 20 years of working in different factories, and after moving the family from California to Portland, they moved to Vancouver.
Linda explained that one day at lunch, about five years ago, father Ming was eating in a small cafe on Mill Plain Blvd. and had noticed the owner was having a particularly rough day. She exclaimed that she wished someone would just buy the place. He stepped up, made her and offer, and did just that.
“He came home and told us, ‘well, I bought you a restaurant,’“ Linda said.
Ming had only known Vietnamese cooking by proxy. It was his wife Tuyet who guarded the family recipes and kept the pots boiling. “My dad didn’t know who was going to run the place or anything,” Linda said. “But he was determined to make it work.”
Soon, Tuyet put Ming in charge of the broths and soup. And if you know anything of a pho restaurant, the broth is the life blood of the joint. It’s the point of pride.
Linda said their small cafe, Pho Thanh, struggled in the beginning, trying to figure out what days and hours to stay open, what ingredients customers preferred. But in the end, it was the dedication to the scratch-made soups and other staples that kept the customers coming back. Dedication is the key word here, as mom and pop Bui work every day of the week, at least 12 hours a day.
Ming just laughs off the hard work, instead showing off his large boiling cauldrons of beef and chicken stock. “This one, it goes for 12 hours. Then we add a little of this, and we add a little of that. Green onions. Fresh ginger … and this one, we let it go 16 hours, maybe more,” he says, beaming with pride. “There’s no skimping.”
If you want to check out the fresh pho, you can find the Bui family cooking every day at Pho Thanh Restaurant at 14201 SE Mill Plain Blvd #A in Vancouver, Washington. Phone: 360.892.4788.