(Written by Thuy Smith)
In1988, a shining star guided a fishing boat with Vietnamese refugees to safety, and ultimately led to a new Vietnamese restaurant in Vancouver, WA.
Phuoc Nguyen and his family was one of several families who survived a dangerous escape attempt from Vietnam on a fishing boat. Phuoc was only 13 at the time when he fled Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, with his single mother and five siblings. Prior to boarding the fishing boat, children were not told the purpose of the trip and how it would change their lives forever. Along the way, the children learned the purpose of their journey. Hearing conversations of other refugees not surviving their escape and encountering pirates, the reality of the situation set in.
After several days of navigating through Vietnamese government patrolled water, Phuoc’s ship had lost its way. It was at that point the captain decided to “take a chance on following a bright shining star," said Phuoc.
With three days of no food and running extremely low on water, the star had brought them south to safety upon the shores of Malaysia. Phuoc lived in refugee camps for almost a year. He arrived with his family in Portland, OR on November 31, 1988. A Vietnamese Catholic Church sponsored them.
Unlike South Vietnam, Phuoc’s arrival to Portland was met with snow and cold temperatures. Not knowing anybody and unable to speak English, time passed slowly for Phuoc and his family. They mostly stayed at home. There were occasional visits from their sponsors who brought them household items and other necessities. A black and white television and a radio provided some entertainment and was a way they began to learn English.
After attending high school, he worked in construction and eventually pursued the fishing industry for a better income. The work consisted of 16-hour days, every day, for three months at a time in extremely cold and dangerous conditions. Fortunately, he would have a break during the off season. His hard work was recognized and he was promoted to a quality assurance position and then a second promotion as a foreman where he received management and computer training.
In 1997, Phuoc revisited his birth-land and met Thuy, who later became his wife and immigrated to Portland in 2003. They have three sons, the eldest born in Vietnam. Thuy also sponsored her parents to the U.S. The whole family moved to Vancouver, WA in 2008. It was a proud day when eldest son, Jesse, graduated from high school. In 2020 he will earn his graphic design degree.
Thuy and her parents worked many years in Vietnamese restaurants in Portland, while Phuoc continued working in the commercial fishing industry. With Phuoc’s job, he was away from his family for long periods of time. There was a constant concern for his safety and minimal communication. It was time for a change after having worked in the industry for 24 years.
The family began brainstorming about taking the combined years of restaurant experience to start a restaurant of their own. Phuoc also returned to Vietnam for professional training in Vietnamese cuisine.
Finding the right building was a challenge. Things weren’t coming together until one day on his way home, Phuoc saw a former Chinese restaurant had closed and the building was for lease. He called the owner. Somebody already inquired information in hopes of starting a Mexican restaurant, but the owner actually liked the idea of a Vietnamese restaurant. He decided to lease the building to Phuoc. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing. In this case, it couldn’t have been more perfect. The restaurant is located only minutes from Phuoc’s home. “It was just like fate," said Phuoc.
The star is what brought me here"
After signing a contract, renovations and other preparations took place. While deciding on a name, Phuoc thought about that shining star that helped guide him to safety when he was a child. "When I was thinking of a name, in my mind it popped up, oh the star, that's what brought me here," exclaimed Phuoc. "So, that’s why I named it Pho Star."
Pho Star was born and opened its doors in February 2018.
Vietnamese food is pretty healthy and I wanted to show that we have good food too. I try to always get the best quality possible. I want to treat my customers with what we would eat ourselves. I just work here and do my best. I want them to know I’m a good cook with all my feelings and emotions in it, said Phuoc.”
What is Vietnamese Cuisine
There are aromatic soups, marinated grilled meats, rice and noodle dishes topped with fresh herbs, a variety of veggies along with being aesthetically pleasing and definitely healthy. In Vietnam, salted flavor is preferred more in the North and sweeter flavor in the South.
Vietnamese food is typically not spicy like Thai or Hmong food. The Vietnamese hot sauce has very little bite in comparison to other hot sauces. Some hot sauce is just simply hot, in my opinion, with no real flavor. The Vietnamese hot sauce actually adds flavor to your dish with it's subtle sweetness.
The most traditional sauce used in cooking, fish sauce, is also used as a condiment. Instead of egg-rolls, there are "crispy rolls" made out of rice paper. It has a lighter crisp skin and is accompanied with the fish sauce. Some dishes are also accompanied with pickled carrots and daikon.
If you haven't tried Vietnamese food before, Pho Star is a great place to be introduced. See My recommendations for starters listed below.
My Review and Recommendations
I’ve been to many Vietnamese restaurants in the United States and Vietnam. I’ve eaten at about 20 Vietnamese restaurants between Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR. Pho Star is definitely one of the best. The food is authentic and consistently delicious. There are generous portions at affordable prices. The place is cozy and very clean. The owners are real friendly and customers have expressed how they have been made to feel welcomed and like family. It is the go-to place for my husband and I when we crave Vietnamese food. Currently new items are being planned for the future including adding a weekend special. They also offer catering services.
Pho has been the big craze for some time. However, I would like to recommend trying some other popular Vietnamese dishes to start out with.
And finally, top off your meal with a Vietnamese ice coffee-
Cafe Sua Da!
Promotional Video for Pho Star