Field Notes

A New Identity for the Phở Bắc Boat: Neighborhood Diner

The Boat serves exactly one dish, fried garlic chicken, plus pandan waffles for dessert.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Amber Fouts March 31, 2023 Published in the Summer 2023 issue of Seattle Met

Quynh and Yenvy Pham wrote a new chapter for their family's historic boat-shaped pho shop.

Image: Amber Fouts

For the bulk of the last five years, one of Seattle’s culinary landmarks sat empty in Little Saigon. Now it’s back, serving just one main dish: half a Cornish hen glazed in fish sauce and coated in garlic, an homage in poultry form to those ice cream drumsticks rolled in chopped peanuts. Each order of com ga mam toi comes with a formidable knife, but the best way to dismantle this chicken is with two sticky hands. Juice drips from the meat, and yet the skin is fried to an admirable crisp. You could parse all the technical ways this dish succeeds, but that’s a waste of time that could be spent digging in.

And yet, every day, at least one person walks into the restaurant and asks for pho.

The Boat presents com ga mam toi as a full meal situation.

Image: Amber Fouts

Which makes a sort of sense. The Boat is a new restaurant from the family behind Phở Bắc, now finalists for a James Beard Award. The Boat occupies the humble structure where Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham opened what became Seattle’s first pho restaurant in 1982. A few decades in, the couple stuck the remnants of a Vietnamese Catholic parade float onto the front of the building. It gave the pho shop the look of a small boat— itself a meaningful symbol in Vietnamese American culture—forever steaming into the busy intersection of Jackson and Rainier beside a gaudy plastic palm tree.

The plastic menu board isn't the original from 1982...but it's been in the restaurant for a long time.

Image: Amber Fouts

In 2012 Phở Bắc’s founders handed the growing business over to three of their five kids. Yenvy, Quynh, and Khoa Pham moved Phở Bắc into a much larger building across the parking lot from the boat (not yet an upper-case designation). When they weren’t navigating pandemic shutdown survival—or opening their new pho shop location and cocktail bar near Westlake—the siblings pondered the question of what to do with the quirky little space that held so much legacy. Khoa’s unexpected death at age 35, from a heart attack, also sidelined business concerns as the family coped.

The Boat’s new identity came, of all places, from Theresa’s YouTube habit. Though technically retired, the family matriarch “finds all her new recipes there,” says Quynh. As she and Yenvy tell it, Theresa was watching a video about com ga mam toi and told her daughters, “you should make this—we know all these flavors!”

Com ga mam toi translates to “chicken rice with garlic sauce.” Yenvy happened to eat some on a visit to Saigon in 2019, making her the only Pham with firsthand com ga mam toi experience. “It’s newer in Vietnam,” she says. So new that Andrea Nguyen, a cookbook author and America’s authority on Vietnamese food, wasn’t familiar with the dish. She emailed me a translation of an article that credits a shop in Saigon for creating the dish within the past few years. It proved so popular, the chef has since opened three new branches. “It looks like a fun play on chicken and rice,” Nguyen wrote. Traditional dishes like com ga Hai Nam or com ga xiu xiu usually lean into ginger, with just a touch of garlic. Chicken is poached, not fried.

Limited experience with this particular dish didn’t stop the Phams from forging ahead. The siblings possess a preternatural ability to do new, cool things that somehow also uphold their roots. Phở Bắc Sup Shop, the new flagship across the parking lot, still serves those familiar broth and noodle bowls, now with a few additional dishes (chicken wings, fries in pho gravy) and way more, way prettier seating. Their cocktail bar, Phởcific Standard Time, crafts drinks from ingredients like pandan or sesame oil–washed rice wine (not to mention spirits from Vietnam’s first craft gin distillery.) Yenvy’s coffee shop side project, Hello Em, roasts small-batch robusta coffee beans from Vietnam.

The Boat's cocktail menu includes streamlined flavors from the family's cocktail bar, Phởcific Standard Time.

Image: Amber Fouts

The Boat capitalizes on these new skill sets. For one, most people don’t walk in expecting this gamut of drink options—less precious versions of Phởcific Standard Time flavors. The iced Vietnamese coffee topped with coconut–egg white “cloud” catapults you out of postprandial nap urges. It comes in vintage Phở Bắc glasses, long since retired from the restaurant’s second location.

Each meal is delivered on a shiny silver platter, another family archive find from a long-ago moment when Theresa wanted to open a hot pot restaurant. The platter contains that half-chicken, a scoop of rice cooked in pandan, a cup of broth, and a side salad of chrysanthemum greens so good it could be its own freestanding dish. Com ga mam toi doesn’t usually come as part of a full meal (at least according to my translated news source). But the Phams are making up the rules anyway, Yenvy acknowledges. “This is how we eat as a family.”

The Boat is a particular tangle of new and old, traditional and reworked. But it has instantly become Little Saigon’s version of a well-loved neighborhood diner—a place that’s valuable day and night, whether you know its backstory or just stumbled in for some pandan waffles, a dessert that’s difficult to resist and the only other dish on the menu beside garlic chicken.

The banh kep waffles, made with pandan, come with a sidecar of coconut cloud.

Image: Amber Fouts

The sisters began this project very aware of the rule inherent to food trucks and street stalls: If you do just one dish, you better do it right. Social media helped once again on this front when Yenvy discovered “this crazy pressure fryer” on Instagram. She and Quynh remain a little bit afraid of this high-pressure chamber full of hot oil. But it steams and fries a handful of raw birds to moisture-addled, crisp-skinned perfection in 10 minutes. The result bears limited resemblance to anything you’ll find on the streets of Saigon, though it’s right at home on the streets of Seattle—plus, it’s gluten-free.

The Phams added wooden booths and a tiled eating counter in 2019, during a short-lived experiment serving bun bo hue. (“Too much soup, too confusing,” says Yenvy.) It’s brighter in here than it was, a touch more bougie—but just a touch. A few strategic doses of faux wood paneling, the kind you find in 1980s basements, hearken back to the years when this space’s decor consisted mostly of bad lighting and ugly beige tile.

The changes weren’t just internal. The Phams also repainted the ship-shaped structure in preparation for its return to service. After years of five-alarm red, it’s now a gentle mauve, a shade Khoa loved, according to his sisters. Depending on the light—depending on your perception—the Boat now looks like a time-softened version of its old self. Or like something brand new.

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