Good news for the many fans of Seattle restaurant classic Phnom Penh Noodle House: The beloved Cambodian restaurant and community hub, which closed under financial duress in 2018 after 30 years, is set to reopen on March 14.
The family-run place was facing the same exigencies as every independently owned spot in newly expensive Seattle — chefs and owners citywide report increasing difficulty keeping up with rising costs and finding workers, and restaurant closures appear to be on the rise. Then, after co-owner Dawn Ung’s son was badly injured in a car accident, the family found itself unable to make ends meet while paying for his care on the proceeds from the business.
Now, thanks in part to a $140,000 grant from the city, Phnom Penh Noodle House will be restored to Seattle’s Chinatown International District in a new building on Jackson Street.
Sisters Dawn Ung, Darlene Ung and Diane Le took over the place after their father, chef Sam Ung, retired. At the time of the closure, they’d begun to look in neighborhoods across the city for less expensive leased space — but, as Diane put it at a festive Wednesday news conference in the restaurant’s fresh new quarters, “Our hearts pulled us back to the C.I.D. . We belong here.”
She noted that even after taking out loans, crowdfunding, holding fundraising dinners and “scraping the piggy banks,” they hadn’t been able to put together the capital to get the family business back up and running. Of the interim closure, Dawn noted, “It’s the interactions that I really miss,” the regular customers who had also become part of the family. “I don’t know if it’s the food or if they just come to see us!” she said, laughing.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity” to receive the city grant, Diane said.
In the new space’s kitchen before the news conference, father Sam Ung talked of Phnom Penh Noodle House’s history.
“I started out in a tiny place in ’87… The kitchen was very tiny, like one of these corners,” he said, gesturing toward part of the expanse of floor and shiny appliances. He had a menu of just seven items for the first 10 years, he said. This isn’t the first time the restaurant has closed nor moved: In February 1997, snow caused the roof of the original Maynard Street location to cave in, and he reopened in a new location on King that July. (He’s very happy with retirement — “No work, no clock!” he chortled.)
At the news conference, Sam presented Mayor Jenny Durkan with a signed copy of his 2012 autobiography “I Survived the Killing Fields: The True Life Story of a Cambodian Refugee.” Durkan remarked that Sam “showed his daughters what the American dream is all about,” calling him “incredibly brave.” She noted to enthusiastic applause that at a time when the U.S. president and federal government seek to close borders, “Seattle supports immigrants.” Durkan spoke of “empowering small businesses” — especially those run by immigrants and people of color — that are struggling to pay rent and find workers who can actually afford to live here.
The pilot program from which Phnom Penh Noodle House has benefited has also given financial support to local restaurants Musang (new on Beacon Hill from chef Melissa Miranda), The Barbecue Pit (after displacement by development, reopening soon in a new Central District location from chef/pitmaster Edward “Pookie” Whitfield) and Communion Restaurant (forthcoming in the Central District from chef Kristi Brown of That Brown Girl Cooks).
But the city can’t give grants to every one of Seattle’s many independent restaurants struggling to stay afloat — what’s the bigger strategy? When asked, Durkan mentioned “a range of strategies… we’re trying to see if there are certain neighborhoods and communities that it makes sense for the city to have some overall tool that allows more commercial affordability.” One such strategy, she said, was “really staying in touch with the various business districts.
“We’ve got a range of tools… and at the same time we’re working with small business in other ways, to decrease the cost of permitting and speed that up, to reduce the regulations in terms of cost, for example, the cost to hang a sign outside or to have flowerpots,” Durkan said. “So we really want to make sure that we’re making the government not be an obstacle, but something that supports small businesses.”