Guide to the San Juans

Secret Pho on Orcas Island

A Vietnamese pop-up on Orcas Island, single-handedly crafted by a Saigon native.

By Allison Williams August 1, 2014 Published in the August 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Kilii Fish

"I think when I die, I will have a smile on my face,” says Mai Lan as she tends to two burbling pots on the stove. This despite cooking for more than five hours, since 6am, in the basement kitchen of Orcas Island’s clapboard Oddfellows Hall. Above her, an aerobics class in the main hall sends thumps and music through the floorboards. The 63-year-old is making an entire restaurant’s worth of traditional Vietnamese food by herself, from ingredients she traveled to Seattle to obtain.

At 11am, locals will stream into her makeshift cafe for steaming bowls of pho and pork egg rolls, and that’s what makes her so happy. “This island took care of me,” says the Saigon-born Lan, so short she can barely see her customers over the tall metal pots. “So I like to serve the people on the island.”

When Lan left her native Vietnam, her cousin told her he had nothing to give her to say goodbye but nevertheless slipped his pho recipe into her pocket. So when she assembles each order—dishing fragrant broth onto rice noodles, strips of beef or chicken, and a sprinkling of herbs—she honors her family. Unable to afford a full-scale business, Lan benefits from a program that loans the Oddfellows kitchen to locals who want to run a mini restaurant or make chai to sell at the farmers market. 

Lan scores the space Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and she carefully sets each table with laminated tablecloths and provides free hot tea. She’s been on the island, on and off, since a job at Rosario Resort brought her here in 1981. Her children headed mainland for college. Lan moves 10 pounds of beef by the handful into a wide tin pan and repeats, “This island took care of me.” These days the community does it by returning weekly to the popup eatery. “People eat a lot of soup on this island.”

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