The restaurant started in 1987 with seven noodle dishes.
A tall plant tucked in the entry of the new Phnom Penh Noodle House bears congratulations from Tai Tung restaurant, printed on a red ribbon—a token of good luck from one Chinatown–International District legend to another as it begins anew.
Phnom Penh spent most of its 31-years in business facing Tai Tung across South King Street, in the spiritual center of the neighborhood. For most of its existence, it was the only Cambodian restaurant in Seattle's proper city limits. Founder Sam Ung fled the Khmer Rouge for Seattle in 1980 and eventually started his own business with a seven-item menu that united the city’s Cambodian community. Ung also introduced many a neophyte to the charms of the delicate noodle soups and Chinese-influenced mee katang. Later, he added a host of additional dishes, including those famed spicy-sweet chicken wings.
In 2013, Ung turned Phnom Penh over to his three daughters—Dawn, Diane, and Darlene. Darlene’s husband, Peng Liu, is the chef. Four years later, a car hit Dawn’s teenage son Devin, leaving with a traumatic brain injury and in need of extensive care as he stabilized. After three decades, the restaurant went dark in 2018, a common Seattle tale of longstanding icons turning out the lights. But the sisters promised, they’d be back.
“The accident was more of a tipping point,” says Diane Le, Sam’s middle daughter. The family needed time. Her generation also wanted to rethink the business. “It was handed down by my dad, and everything was built around him and his systems.” The sisters wanted a bigger kitchen, more current touches like a house cocktail list, and ambience that matched their own, more modern aesthetic.
To the city’s immense relief, Phnom Penh returned this spring, with a menu that’s nearly the same, but a more compact space that trades meandering rooms and faux bamboo décor for light-filled minimalism and angles of blond wood. The dining room currently seats some tables, but mastering takeout packaging took precedence over that cocktail program (at least for now).
The restaurant resurfaced barely three blocks away from that King Street address. Now, however, it perches at the edge of Little Saigon, in the base of a new building that adds some much-needed housing to a neighborhood redefining itself for a new generation. Phnom Penh’s sharp new dining room undoubtedly pulls the restaurant into a new era but the beefy lok lac, the original noodle soup, and the mee katang in the restaurant’s basketlike nest of crispy egg noodles taste just as you remember.