“When someone enters the restaurant, Van is prepared: “When they step in the door I know what they want: no spicy, no blood, no pork, on onion. I know! I just make the food and they sit down.”
— Van Nguyen
Back in 2004, Vinh Nguyen was looking for work. An immigrant from Vietnam, she’d been living in Portland for nearly two decades, pulling together jobs in restaurants and manufacturing, working overtime to make ends meet as a single mom. When she was unexpectedly laid off, she struggled to figure out what came next.
That’s when her three grown kids decided to give back. They pooled their money to start Bun Bo Hue, a restaurant specializing in the rich, spicy eponymous Vietnamese noodles. The idea was to give their mother stable employment, supported and surrounded by the family she had worked so hard for all those years.
“She did everything,” explains Van Nguyen, Vinh’s daughter and a co-owner of the restaurant. “She worked and she saved money to buy a house. We saw her suffer, and that’s why we did this.”
These days, Vinh is most often found behind the counter at her restaurant on SE 82nd, happily serving up steaming bowls of bun bo hue to customers. The family made a deliberate choice to feature the distinctive soup, which features five kinds of meat. “Everybody knows pho, but we want to go a different way,” says Duc Nguyen, Vinh’s son-in-law, who often works the front of the restaurant.
It wasn’t always easy to run a family business. “In the beginning, we didn’t know how to set up, we didn’t know how to work together,” says Duc. But over time they found their rhythm, and Vinh perfected her recipe by asking customers what they liked. The secret ingredient, she says, is that she enjoys making it.
The gamble has paid off; the family bought their building a few years back. Since 2004, several other bun bo hue restaurants have also opened along SE 82nd, a testament to the growing popularity of the dish. The Nguyens have developed a familial atmosphere with customers as well. When someone enters the restaurant, Van is prepared: “When they step in the door I know what they want: no spicy, no blood, no pork, on onion. I know! I just make the food and they sit down,” she laughs. “If you want to change your mind when you step in, you have to call it out!”
The joyful chaos of the restaurant has its own rhythm. “Because we are family, we work all the jobs. We split it,” explains Duc. “Sometimes I jump into the kitchen to give [Mom] a hand, sometimes she steps outside to take an order. We don’t do separate roles. We’re dancing around…” But central to every meal is that home-cooked, beef, pork, blood, and onion soup: Vinh’s specialty.
Vinh says she enjoys working with her kids. It’s hard work, but she feels happy to be doing it. When the family took a two-week vacation this summer, Vinh got restless at home without cooking. She was ready to get back to work.
Storyteller: Caitlyn Dwyer | Photos: Kim Nguyen | Published: March 2018
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