In 1982, Quynh and Yenvy Pham’s parents turned their sandwich shop in a low, boat-shaped structure at the edge of the city’s International District, into Seattle’s first phở shop and introduced the city to its unofficial food of the (very long) rainy season. Today, that same building sits at the heart of Little Saigon, the younger generation runs the Phở Bắc empire, and its flagship location – the Súp Shop – operates next door. But at the newly opened Phởcific Standard Time, Quynh and Yenvy carry on their parents’ legacy – not only of noodle soup, but of bringing the city tastes of Vietnamese flavours unlike anything else in town.
The menu at P.S.T, a speakeasy-style bar upstairs from Phở Bắc’s new Downtown location shares little with the one at the barebones original, save for the recipe used for the phở broth kept hot in a kettle behind the bar. Here, it comes served in teacups for the ‘Khoa wuz here’ cocktail, paired with phở-fat washed Jameson whiskey.
The drink references Yenvy and Quynh’s brother, Khoa, who came up with the idea for P.S.T., pronounced “psst” like, “Hey, over here, they’re serving caramelised fish sauce crab dip.” Khoa and his sisters worked together to find the location and outline the concept, but Covid delays pushed the spring 2020 opening into fall 2021, and Khoa passed away in March, before he could see the crowds climb the steps into the plant-filled room where Yenvy controls a playlist dotted with Vietnamese new wave.
Photo courtesy of P.S.T.
Nowhere else in the city rings with the powerful voice of Lynda Trang Dai (“She’s like the Madonna of our ‘90s,” says Yenvy), while people eat pâté made with phở fat and sip cocktails made from artichoke tea – a traditional Vietnamese drink. But when her parents first opened, nowhere else served those simple bowls of noodle soup – and certainly not from amid the industrial and warehouse buildings to the east of the International District. “Someone was sleeping and living in my parking lot,'' Nien Pham told the Seattle Times in 1993 of when he first opened. Around the same time, the paper quoted another Vietnamese businessman who turned down the opportunity to buy the same space, saying “That corner, with all the drunkards, I didn't know, for the future.'' That same businessman eventually invested in a space along Rainier Avenue solely because he heard Pham was opening a second Phở Bắc there.
Today, “The Boat” sits in a coveted location, on one of Seattle’s streetcar lines, at a major intersection, with easy access to Downtown, the stadiums, the Central District, and all of South Seattle along Rainier Avenue. The phở industry – party of one when Phở Bắc opened – grew slowly at first, with the Seattle Times food writer estimating a half-dozen phở houses in 1992. But today, the city shows record of more than 75 different business licenses to restaurants with the ‘pho’ in the name – which doesn’t even count places with multiple locations, or that registered their business under a different name.
Growing up, the Pham siblings – five in total – worked in their parents’ restaurant from around age 12, like so many children of immigrant restaurateurs. When they each graduated, Yenvy says her parents encouraged them to go out and see the world, to travel and have fun. But the minute they got home, their parents handed them a Phở Bắc location to run. Yenvy, Quynh, and Khoa took to the business, eventually opening Phở Bắc Súp Shop next to their parents’ shop, expanding to the Downtown location which opened this summer and P.S.T., nestled upstairs a few months later.
“Our family never really thinks things through,” says Yenvy about how P.S.T. happened. They got a good deal on the space, and Khoa had the idea. “Vietnam’s bars are very pretty, really flashy and Instagramable,” describes Yenvy. “But they suck. [The drinks] are so sweet, unbalanced.” They wanted to incorporate the Vietnamese flavours they group with, but into focused craft cocktails.
Photo courtesy of P.S.T.
Khoa managed the build out, but it took more than a year of Covid delays to open the restaurant, and even longer to open P.S.T., in part because the Pham sisters refused to open without the right person running the drinks. Despite her admitted desire to do everything, Yenvy says, “I know we can’t do this.” Eventually, one of their liquor reps recommended Katherine Frazier, who managed the bar at The Gerald at the time, a craft cocktail bar that served Korean food. “She just understands us,” says Yenvy, and, importantly, she understood the flavours the Phams wanted to work into the menu.
The first drink she came up with heads the cocktail menu, an umami bomb featuring phở fat washed Iwai Japanese whiskey, cream sherry, and comes garnished with a salted egg yolk. The artichoke tea matches up with Cynar, honey, and a pandan leaf. And Vietnamese coffee comes spiked with aquavit and crowned with a cloud of rich chartreuse egg yolk custard. “Pickled leeks is something we always eat with sticky rice cakes,” explains Yenvy, so they show up in a cocktail made with rice wine. “Like the Vietnamese version of a dirty martini.”
The short food menu comes straight from Yenvy and Quynh, filled with inside jokes and nostalgic nods for their fellow Vietnamese Americans, but appealing to anyone: Quynh’s “hot pockets” style hand-pies, the phở cup designed to look like classic Cup Noodles, and the tomato and fish pâté served in a sardine tin with Skyflakes crackers. Vietnamese-style pickles come with most dishes, but in along with traditional vegetables like jalapeño, they include seasonal additions such as chayote and persimmon.
“In the Pacific Northwest, and especially South Seattle, we have such a diverse culinary scene,” says Yenvy. They worked to bring that into their own Vietnamese recipes and dishes, using the ingredients and techniques from around the city. “That was the fun part,” she says. Like with the phở her parents served first to fellow immigrants then to the entire city, even those without the fluency to get the winks to Vietnamese American culture find comfort and impressive flavour in the dishes and drinks at P.S.T. And if that means forty years down the road, the city could brim with Vietnamese cocktail bars like P.S.T. on every corner, to borrow a phrase from a previous generation of immigrants from a different part of the world, “We should be so lucky”.