By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly
Darlene Ung arrives at Phnom Penh Noodles House in the morning to open the restaurant. She heads straight to the back bar, turns on the coffee maker, and makes sure the floors are swept and the tables are set.
May 28 seemed like any other day in Phnom Penh Noodle House’s over 30-year history, but it was the restaurant’s last day.
Sam Ung, who escaped the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, opened Phnom Penh Noodle House in Seattle’s International District (ID) in 1987, beginning at a smaller location on Maynard Avenue (space now occupied by the Northwest Asian Weekly) with the restaurant’s original seven dishes, still regarded as Phnom Penh’s top dishes today.
The number one then is still the number one on today’s menu, recalls Sam’s daughter Dawn Ung. The restaurant’s Special Rice Noodle is a rice soup noodle with gulf prawns, calamari, fish cakes, fish balls, sliced and ground pork, green onions, cilantro, and roasted onion. This dish can also come with both egg and rice noodle, and like a few other noodle dishes on the menu, the noodles can come dry with bone broth on the side.
The family-owned and operated Noodle House was a way of life for their family. Each daughter worked as evening servers after school and even during college, and returned to help at the restaurant on weekends. It was the three sisters’ former stomping ground, workplace, or “substitute daycare,” as Dawn had jokingly pointed out.
“It was a great place for celebrations. We had our sweet 16, graduation, almost all events. It always brought people together. The restaurant was that place for us,” said Diane Le, who recalled high school days of taking the bus to the restaurant after classes at Garfield High and doing her homework between helping other customers.
“I hated it,” Dawn said with a laugh. “It was long hours. I was doing work I felt like, as a child, I shouldn’t be doing.”
“I used to have to peel the noodles, the wide rice noodles we’d get from Tsue Chong. This was about 40 pounds of noodles! You’d separate it. I’d hate it so much, I used to throw it away! It wasn’t a lot, but I would throw some away just so I didn’t have to peel it! Gosh, that was terrible, but when you’re that young, it was never ending,” she said.
At its smaller first location on Maynard, Sam’s wife Kim Ung opened shop each day, turning on the coffee maker, burning incense at the altar, making sure the floors were swept and the tables set. She’d bring cups of coffee to Sam in the kitchen just as Darlene does in present day. She pours cups of coffee and brings them into the kitchen, setting it on the station for her brothers-in-law and her husband Peng Liu, who took over as chef after Sam retired. Liu and his brothers set up the kitchen, heating up bone broth and stocks in large stock pots and assembling wontons for the Noodle House’s popular wonton noodles.
Sam Ung never expected his daughters to take over the restaurant. He encouraged them to pursue their own passions, but when Dawn returned to Seattle and found that her parents were ready to retire, Dawn and Darlene made the decision to take it over.
Together, the three sisters ran the restaurant after Ung retired in 2013.
Sweet and amiable Diane handling the emails, marketing, and invoices in the background, while reserved, soft spoken Darlene handled front-of-the-house and bookkeeping. Friendly and outgoing Dawn handled service, and as a result, appears to know most of the customers who walk through the door.
Seattle is home to one of the largest Cambodian refugee populations, but dining options in the area providing classic Cambodian dishes are few. A general search of Cambodian restaurants in the area leads to Queens Deli in White Center and two other choices in Tacoma and Vashon.
“Darlene and I decided to take it over because we felt, where would we go? Where would our customers go to get the type of food that we do because it is so different? I think for my own selfish reasons, because this was a second home to me and I enjoy eating our noodles almost every day. Not being able to have that and thinking of others who also come on a regular basis, they wouldn’t be able to have that either,” said Dawn Ung.
Tragedy struck the family last September when Dawn’s son Devin was hit by a car. He suffered traumatic brain injuries that left him unable to eat, speak, or move without assistance. Since the accident, Dawn has divided her time between the restaurant and providing care for her son. They are hoping to put together enough money to move Devin into home care.
Like the restaurant, Devin’s accident banded the family together, with Darlene and her husband putting in extra hours to keep the restaurant running while family members stayed with Devin when Dawn is unable to do so. But it was also the pinnacle that led to what the daughters had considered doing for some time — closing the family restaurant.
At 10 a.m., the restaurant’s scheduled opening time, up to five parties waited to be seated and more would come and continue eating past 3 p.m., when Liu and his brothers would put out their final dishes at the Noodle House, the last few rounds of number ones for their decade-long patrons.
At 4 p.m., the family’s closing party begins. Hand drawn signs and posters hung over the restaurant’s characteristic paintings of Cambodian landscapes. The family set out tin foil buffet trays of fried rice, beef sate, and rice noodles. There were two different flavors of sheet cake. The payment counter where Darlene closed tabs and printed checks became a secret clubhouse for the family’s children, a generation that have watched their parents work at the Noodle House as Dawn, Darlene, and Diane once did. The scene at the closing party resembled a family birthday party, not unlike the many that the Noodle House once hosted. Regulars and family friends show up to say goodbye and provide best wishes to a family they’ve come to know as neighbors.
“Where will I go to eat before the Mariners game?” Noodle House regular Perry Huang wondered aloud.
Huang has been a regular at the Noodle House since 1990. Upon finding that the restaurant was closed on Wednesdays, Huang switched to watching Thursday games specifically to eat at Noodle House before the first pitch.
Darlene’s high school friend and 18-year regular Deborah Van Patten mans the door, welcoming guests.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s goodbye,” she said about the vibe in the room.
“It’s sad to say goodbye, but I do know that they’re doing the right thing for their family and that’s really important. No matter how sad we are about it and how we’d miss the food, we need to support this family and what they’re doing. Everyone is really sad about the food, but they’ve always served us and now it’s our turn as their neighbors to help them out.”
At the closing party is also where many guests learned of the family’s hopes to reopen a smaller location in the future. On a poster, Diane collected votes on which crowdfunding incentives customers would most like to see for “Future Phnom Penh.” Currently, the family has yet to have a real family meeting about the future location, says Le.
Darlene’s husband, Liu, has spoken with other business owners in the ID and has hopes to re-open Phnom Penh in the former Mon Hei Bakery space — currently under construction since the destructive fire in 2013 — or perhaps another noodle house spot when older proprietors choose to retire, but this is uncertain. What they do know is that after a final clean out this week, the three Ung sisters and their extended family will leave behind the space they’ve called home for most of their young lives. The second location of the popular Bellevue-based Sizzling Pot King is slated to take its place.
Tiffany can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.