Backstory: How a 1950s Seattle Ice Cream Shop Became a Boat-shaped Pho Institution

Seattle's love affair with pho started at this iconic spot

This article appears in print in the November 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

The landmark. Pho Bac Restaurant
The location. Chinatown–International District, 1314 S Jackson St.

The backstory. At the corner of what is perhaps Little Saigon’s busiest intersection, a boat-shaped building and yellow faux palm tree mark the birthplace of Seattle’s love affair with pho. But before the iconic restaurant that most now know as Pho Bac helped launch our city’s obsession with Vietnamese noodle soup, it shifted shapes in a string of short-lived establishments.

Constructed in 1954 as an ice cream shop, the small, triangular building later served a brief stint as a real estate office and then cycled through several restaurants during the ’70s. It took on new life in the early ’80s when Theresa Cat Vu and Augustine Nien Pham bought the building and opened Pho Bac, solidifying its sea vessel silhouette in the late 2000s when part of a parade float was repurposed as the restaurant’s boat bow.

Now, after months of renovations to update the space, the building has been reinvented once again—this time with an open kitchen—yet it retains the same cozy diner vibe and short menu loyal fans will recognize from the original restaurant. A few relics from the past—the original sandwich board and wood wall paneling, for instance—remain, a testament to the restaurant’s staying power.

“It’s such an institution,” says Yenvy Pham, who, along with her siblings, operates the Pho Bac restaurants around the city, now that their parents have retired. “Seattle needs that.”

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