Nearly 40 years ago, Sam Ung and his wife escaped the Khmer Rouge and crossed the Pacific Ocean from Cambodia to America. Together, they dreamed of sharing their culture and they turned that dream into reality when they opened Phnom Penh Noodle House in 1987.
For 30 years, the Ung family has served three generations of customers, and has been a staple in Seattle’s Cambodian community. Today, it’s run by Sam’s daughters Dawn and Darlene Ung.
But, the last day of the restaurant looms on Monday, as the family will close their doors to focus on the health of Dawn’s son, Devin, who suffered a brain injury in a car accident last September.
Devin, a high school senior, is in the pediatric ICU at Harborview Hospital in serious but stable condition.
Right now, Devin is not responsive, non-verbal and shows no signs of communication, which has been hard for his mother.
“It’s been tough and there’s no payout with the insurance that will sustain us for a while,” Dawn Ung said. “The GoFundMe has really helped, and it looks like so much money we have raised, but it hasn’t even scratched the surface.”
The restaurant closure not only comes at a sad time for the family, but has an impact on Seattle’s Khmer community. Phnom Penh Noodle House is the only Cambodian restaurant in the Seattle city limits. If you include White Center, there is a total of three.
The Khmer community already is relatively small in America. With Phnom Penh closing, it feels as if Seattle is losing a connection to the Cambodian culture.
“I felt like our ethnic and community restaurants are closing out and it seems to be a pattern,” said Sameth Mell, a Khmer American in Seattle who has frequented the restaurant for 20 years. “So much of our identities are tied into our cuisine, foods, and arts.”
Heather Do, 22, says her father always took her to eat at the restaurant when she was younger, and the place became a family favorite and gave them a sense of belonging.
“The family is so nice and welcoming,” Do said. “You can really taste the hard work and love they put into every dish they serve.”
Mell, 35, organized an event in April to support the restaurant after hearing of the family’s plans to close.
“Encouraging people to support the business during their last months is important,” Mell said. “I also acknowledge that the owners have their personal reasons too, so there is a bittersweet feeling.”
Do also spent a lot of time supporting the restaurant in the past few months.
“It feels like I pretty much live there now,” Do said. “I think I’ve been back five or six times in April and I plan on going back more.”
Phnom Penh Noodle House did not only create a community for Seattleites, but it was a home that Sam Ung’s three daughters, Dawn, Darlene, and Diane Ung, grew up in.
In 2013, Sam Ung retired and two of his daughters, Dawn and Darlene Ung, took over.
“I had no aspiration of this as a child,” Dawn Ung said, laughing. “I hated the restaurant.”
“My favorite memory of the restaurant was definitely when my dad was still here,” Dawn said. “There was always something to eat that was off the menu. He doesn’t show his love through words, but he definitely showed it through his actions.”
The three sisters grew up with their customers and the connections they made encouraged them to keep the restaurant going.
“We continued on with the restaurant after my father retired because of the customers,” Dawn Ung said. “When my parents retired, where would the customers go?”
The customers often did not only go to the restaurant for the food. They returned because they enjoyed the company of the owners. Sometimes, customers would call in and ask if Dawn Ung was working and if she was not, they would not go in to eat that day.
“I noticed that a lot with my dad,” Dawn Ung said. “People would always come back to see my dad, and he’s Chinese you know, so he’s not that great at making small talk, but he’s the greatest improviser when it comes to friends and family.”
The family and friends hope Devin’s condition will improve.
“He’s funny, outgoing and caring. He always put his 100 percent into whatever he did,” said Sarah Lee, a University of Washington student who knew Devin in high school. “He’s a great ultimate player and a great team player.”
Devin’s school just had their prom and graduation is coming up, and Dawn says it’s been difficult for the family to cope.
“It’s me dealing with reality,” Dawn Ung said. “And it’s weird that he’s not a part of it.”
Dawn says the family hopes this is not the end for Phnom Penh Noodle House.
“We hope to one day continue that on,” Dawn Ung said. “This is not forever. One day we hope to re-open.”
On Monday, May 28, the restaurant will be serving lunch until 2 p.m. Afterwards, they will be closing the kitchen down in preparation for a celebration. They will celebrate the history and community that they have given Seattle and will be providing cake. Anyone is welcome to attend to eat cake and give hugs.