Soup's On Point at Pho Bac Sup Shop

The family behind Seattle’s first pho shop recasts the city’s relationship with one of its signature dishes.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Chona Kasinger June 19, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Seattle Met

It’s the same soup you love at Pho Bac—now with snacks and new noodle dishes.

Approach from the east, and the red tugboat-shaped building that established Seattle’s relationship with pho looks as if it’s pulling the blocky, mostly black edifice that looms behind it across the concrete sea of a neighborhood in flux. These days, though, it’s the other way around.

Inside that blocky structure, Pho Bac Sup Shop course corrects our civic perspective that pho is balm for our cold and drizzly climate and restores northern Vietnam’s signature hot noodle soup to its subtropical (or at least subtropically styled) origins. Summer is perpetual inside the whitewashed interior, where palm leaf ceiling fans rotate high above wood tables, bamboo chairs, and a long wainscoted bar topped in marbled quartz. A sunroom addition fills the whole place with light; even the Vietnamese new wave soundtrack is breezy.

It’s a new chapter of a story that began at Pho Bac, that funny little red boat structure across the parking lot. Newly arrived from Vietnam in the early 1980s, Theresa Cat Vu and her husband, Augustine Nien Pham, set out to sell sandwiches. But Cat’s pho, originally a weekend-only sideline, quickly overshadowed the ham and turkey subs as Little Saigon sprang up around their restaurant at Rainier, Jackson, and Boren. City lore credits Pho Bac as our first pho shop; it’s still arguably the best.

Today three of their five adult children run the family business, which now includes locations on Rainier and in Denny Triangle. For years, Yenvy, her brother Khoa, and sister Quynh debated the best use for the building behind the original Pho Bac. Yenvy can tick off the number of residential developments in the works nearby; the family pho recipe could be the foundation of a new kind of place that reinforces Little Saigon’s culture—but answers the area’s evolution with a full bar and enough space to host the occasional popup.

Sup Shop’s bar-backed dining room channels Vietnam's subtropical origins.

While they collaborate on all fronts, Quynh marshaled the design; genial, fast-talking Yenvy mostly oversees Sup Shop’s food, as evidenced by the chemical compound for MSG tattooed on her arm. With help from her mom, she developed a menu of snacks that exhibit the second generation’s fluency in both classic Viet flavors and in sliders, fries, and wings. 

Most are culinarily spot on. The fries are thin, golden, and insanely good with the garlicky lemongrass dipping sauce, whose herbaceous charms will make you forget ketchup ever existed. Full-size wings are fried twice for maximum crispness. Prawn ceviche is punctuated with a rustic chop of bell pepper and the flavor of ngo om, Vietnam’s bright cuminlike rice paddy herb, ready to scoop onto shrimp chips. The Unfortunate Cookie Mix, a hodgepodge of broken fortune cookies (their sweetness offset with peanuts and chili oil), is lovely as a $1 snack, even better on the ice cream sundae. It doesn’t take long to eat your way through Sup Shop’s focused menu, and the only sad trombone I experienced was the weirdly mismatched potato roll bun (and overly thick coins of pickled carrot) on the pork sausage sliders.

Rows of maneki-neko statues and bottles of natural, low-intervention wine line the shelves along the far wall. Suzi An—veteran of Edouardo Jordan’s Salare and JuneBaby, friend of the Phams, and kindred entrepreneurial spirit—operates her Vita Uva wine retail shop here.

Just don’t let Sup Shop’s industrial-chic light fixtures and bottles of biodynamic rosé mislead you. When the restaurant opened in the final days of 2017, “some people thought this place was more refined and upscale,” says Yenvy. “No! Not even a little bit.” 

The short rib pho (set your Insta filter to “Flintstone”) and Unfortunate Cookie Mix sundae.

Sit down for dinner at Sup Shop and servers usually wait approximately 30 seconds before they approach and ask what you’d like. This rapid-fire ordering situation works when your only choices are large or small bowl, beef or chicken. It doesn’t quite square with a menu that requires some contemplation. Don’t expect a tableside tutorial on low-intervention wine methods; order off the natural wine list (curated with An’s help, though not part of her shop), and servers often ask that you simply point to the name.

“It’s what we know,” is Yenvy’s cheery assessment of the service. Her family finds staff through the Vietnamese newspapers; it was important to her, and the neighborhood’s identity, that they speak Vietnamese.

Extended Vietnamese families, hungover white girls, middle-aged African American couples—pretty much everyone orders a stainless steel bowl of pho, still marrow rich, delicately spiced, and largely unchanged from Cat’s day. But the new soup options are first-rate. Texture proliferates in the pho tron, adapted from a Hanoi dish: bean sprouts, chopped peanuts, and fried shallots against a vivid backdrop of turmeric-yellow noodles. While broth comes on the side for dipping, those sunny ribbons are already slick with flavor, thanks to the pool of “OG pho bac sauce” in the bottom of the bowl. Short rib pho is the runaway hit. It could be that broth, made next-level rich with an infusion of short rib braising liquid. Or the two lengths of beef bone that jut out of the accompanying hunk of meat, as if some caveman butchered a brontosaurus and served it atop noodle soup—hellaciously messy; hella fun to Instagram.

Yenvy held off on hiring a bar manager until she could woo an alum of higher-end bar programs who also speaks Vietnamese. Timmy Nguyen, at last, arrived in May, a veteran of places like Barrio and Smith and Tavern Law. He’ll put his own stamp on the cocktail menu, but hopefully the What’s Up Pho Bac(k), a shot of bourbon spiced with pho aromatics that comes with a chaser of pho broth, remains unchanged. That drink was the brainchild of Khoa, as was the “Phocific Northwest” sign, writ large in red and blue neon on the wall of the sunroom. It’s a bit of meta commentary on “all the dumb pho puns out there,” Khoa says as he bustles around the dining room one afternoon in a T-shirt that reads, “Sax. Hugs. Rock and Roll.” And a not-so-meta nod to the wealth of pho shops that now characterize the region nearly 40 years after his parents opened for business.

But don’t read too much into it. “We just got high and thought of it,” he says. “The next morning, it still seemed like a good idea.”

This summer, the Phams will steer the original Pho Bac into new waters. After shuttering in February for some much-needed structural repairs, the red boat will reopen as a bar. Though specifics will likely evolve up until doors open—“We’re a very spontaneous family,” says Yenvy—she’s adamant the quirky ’80s dive vibe will remain. Don’t mistake it for irony.

Fresh spring rolls, crispy mondo chicken wings, and prawn ceviche are served all day—and into the night.

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