Ethnic Seattle’s food tour helps bridge the gap between Little Saigon’s restaurants and first-time patrons — bringing these hidden gems into a well-deserved spotlight.
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES
It’s 11 a.m. on a Friday morning, and the 12th and Jackson intersection — the epicenter of the International District’s Little Saigon — is a hive of activity. Dozens of people are going about their day, toting shopping bags, stepping into restaurants, boarding buses and street car compartments, and edging their cars into packed strip-mall parking lots. A richness hangs in the air: scents, perhaps, of bowls of steaming pho, topped with fresh herbs, being delivered to dozens of tables nearby.
It’s this scene — and dozens more like it all around the city — that Taylor Hoang works to preserve.
Among her many impressive accomplishments, Taylor founded the Ethnic Business Coalition (EBC), which “improves Main Street vitality by providing a voice for and services to small ethnic businesses in the Seattle Metro Area,” as the mission statement reads.
Across the state, some 15% of businesses are immigrant owned; in Seattle, that number is around 19 percent, according to EBC. When it comes to restaurants especially, white diners often think of minority-owned restaurants as one-time, exotic, or adventurous encounters rather than mainstream, essential elements of a vibrant city. Taylor wants patrons to experience these cultural enclaves not as a tourist, but as a neighbor.
As a child, Taylor moved to Washington from Vietnam with her parents. She was just 21 when she started her first business, a mortgage company, aimed at offering assistance to the immigrant community, which she noticed had trouble accessing big-banking models.
But Taylor comes from a restaurant family, and that industry pulled her in, too. Her mother, Lien Dang, owns the respected Little Saigon restaurant Huong Binh, which has been a fixture in the community since 1993. Taylor started her own restaurant, the popular Pho Cyclo Cafe, when she was 27 years old. She has expanded that first restaurant into a mini-chain with five locations.
“Through my own restaurants, I developed a good understanding of the challenges that a lot of small minority businesses and people of color face, such as not speaking English well,” she says. “I wanted to help them navigate these challenges. And I recognized that while there were a lot of ethnic chambers, such as the Vietnamese Chamber or the Hispanic Chamber, there wasn’t one entity that was there to help businesses across the board.”
I am journeying through Little Saigon’s district-within-a-district on a food tour with Ethnic Seattle, EBC’s publication arm that aims to connect customers with local businesses. Throughout the summer, Ethnic Seattle organizes walking tours of Little Saigon and Japantown, two of the International District’s sub-communities. Each tour visits a collection of restaurants, markets, delis, and sweets shops, introducing enthusiastic but uninitiated diners to the district’s hidden gems. And these options are likely just the start; Ethnic Seattle may soon offer tours of other districts in South Seattle, which has thriving immigrant populations from East Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
For the inexperienced, the lively streets of the International District can be sensory overload. The neighborhood has the highest density of restaurants of any in the city, from small deli counters to bakeries to groceries to large dim sum parlors — all numbering more than 150 businesses. Add in dozens of other businesses, and it can be hard for a newcomer to know where to start.
For Taylor, the tours are a natural extension of her mission to support these often-fragile small businesses.
“A lot of small and minority-owned businesses are owned by family members, and they’re busy working all day,” Taylor says. “They rarely have time for marketing. They don’t have PR folks representing them. So, we really wanted to give them a voice.”
Food, Taylor says, can be a welcoming medium for connecting unfamiliar places to first-time visitors. “It’s really a way for us to introduce you to what is in the neighborhood. How is it unique? How is it different from other neighborhoods? And then giving you a sampling and a taste of what to expect in the neighborhood.”
Our tour begins at Huong Binh, Taylor’s mother’s restaurant. Over sips of jasmine tea, we tour-goers exchange introductions, and Taylor gives us an overview of the afternoon’s stops.
Next, we walk to the massive Thanh Son Tofu, gleaming with modern touches and shiny finishes. The building is the size of a Safeway grocery store, but customers only interact with the small deli counter at the front. Hidden behind a wall is what I imagine to be an impressive operation, given all that’s made here: French bread for the banh mi sandwiches, an array of baked goods, spring rolls, salads, and accompanying sauces, and, as the name would suggest, tofu and soy milk. Big blocks of tofu of varying textures sit in a buffet-style arrangement, available for sale by the pound.
We hear an overview of the offerings as we sip soy milk, still warm from processing and dyed green from pandan leaves, a popular ingredient of Southeast Asian cooking. We each order banh mi sandwiches and ogle the dessert accoutrements — stacks of tapioca, sweet rice in Skittles hues, fruit, jellies, and more.
After we sample our banh mis, careful not to overeat given the gustatory onslaught that still awaits us, we walk toward our next stop. Though we’re in Little Saigon, with its street signs in Vietnamese and English, we pass restaurants serving Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Korean cuisine, too.
As we walk, the rich texture of the neighborhood’s incredible diversity starts to come alive. It is, after all, home to immigrants of many stripes, and it’s the only area in the continental United States where you’ll find this phenomenon of coexistence — rather than distinct cultural pockets, as in other cities, which are segregated into enclaves like Little Italy, Chinatown, Koreatown, etc. Wave after wave of immigrant communities have settled here together, assisted by social service and community groups that still today form an impressive support system.
We step into another humming microcosm at Lam’s Seafood Market, a family-owned grocer positively packed with shoppers when we arrive. As we sample bites of juicy dragon fruit, we tour the aisles, learning about the impressive diversity of fruits, vegetables, sauces, herbs, and noodles for purchase.
Should we forget any of the things we’ve been taught, Ethnic Seattle provides each of us with a sort of food dictionary, complete with pictures and recipes for green papaya salad and Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk.
Next, we circle back to Huong Binh, where Lien is waiting for us with hearty bowls of rich soup, studded with delicate herbs, ethereal dumplings filled with meatballs, and clumps of bok choy. More tea is poured, and Lien arrives with still more food — this time, bowls of vermicelli noodles with shrimp, pork, and julienned vegetables — with saucers of sweet chili sauce to pour over it all.
Stomachs encroach on lungs, and conversation turns to the city’s hot-button issue of gentrification. Though noticeably devoid of the glass-and-steel high-rises that punctuate other nearby neighborhoods, the International District seems precariously poised due to its central location.
Little Saigon lies outside of the historic center of the neighborhood, which is listed on — and therefore protected by — the National Register of Historic Places. Residents fear that the wave of gentrification sweeping other parts of the city could displace their neighbors by making rents unaffordable, whether for residents or restaurants. Already, a handful of buildings nearby are slated for demolition, to be replaced by newer — and likely more expensive — alternatives. While development may bring some welcome improvements, it seems the neighborhood is holding its collective breath amid all the uncertainty.
But this isn’t the first time the neighborhood has fended off such threats. Japanese internment during World War II threatened to erase the neighborhood’s Japanese heritage. The construction of I-5 in the 1960s sliced through the area, razing businesses and leading to a wave of crime and violence.
Often, people raised within a district’s boundaries grow up to become its champions. But Ethnic Seattle knows that one of the best ways to encourage outside support is to touch people’s hearts through their stomachs.
Taylor’s closing message is one of cooperation and understanding – and learning to see and appreciate this often invisible, yet essential, aspect of immigrants in American communities.
“Ethnic-owned businesses are everywhere,” she says. They’re not exclusive to Chinatown or Rainier Valley. If you look around your local neighborhood, your nail salon and your dry cleaners and your gas station and your take-out teriyaki or Thai restaurant might be owned by immigrants, with immigrants working there. They make a lot of contributions — and add a lot of flavor — in helping build a community.”
Visit EthnicSeattle.com/events to book a tour.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.