AAPI Heritage Month: Phnom Penh Noodle House

In celebration of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we are hosting a series of profiles and stories to amplify and honor people, businesses, organizations, and projects connected to the history of Seattle’s AAPI community.

Over the past 30 years, Phnom Penh Noodle House has seen its share of ups and downs. But through it all, there have been a couple of constants; deep family dedication and unwavering community support. Though the majority of the restaurant’s dishes have been served in the Chinatown International District in Seattle, its story starts three generations ago in Battambang, Cambodia.  

Founder Sam Ung grew up watching the cooks in his parents’ restaurant with awe and amazement. As teenagers, his parents, Chan Kao and Meng Vouch, started a modest mobile noodle cart that they grew into a full-scale restaurant with lines that stretched out the door. At age 14, Ung began helping in the kitchen by chopping vegetables and meat. He was salaried by 15 and became backup for the lead cook at 16. It seemed he was destined to follow in his parents’ culinary footsteps. 

In 1975, the trajectory of Ung’s life changed drastically with the rise of the violent Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Ung and his wife Kim arrived in Seattle as refugees in 1980 where he worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. But his heart was always in the kitchen, and when a small restaurant space became available, Ung jumped on the opportunity. He opened the first iteration of Phnom Penh Noodle House in 1987.  

Just as he had, his three daughters, Dawn, Darlene, and Diane grew up in the restaurant. For many years, the Noodle House was Seattle’s only Cambodian restaurant, and the girls watched it grow into a community staple that united both the Cambodian and broader Asian community in the city. After 26 years, Ung retired as owner and head chef in 2013. His daughters stepped in to take over day-to day operations and Darlene’s husband, Peng Liu took over as chef. In 2017, the family experienced another unexpected shift when Dawn’s son suffered a traumatic brain injury. When the family decided to shut the restaurant doors in 2018, the community responded with an outpouring of both moral and monetary support.  

Last year, the sisters dream of reopening the restaurant was made possible by a community crowd-funding campaign, the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, and a Tenant Improvement Award from the Office of Economic Development which funds businesses that show “an outstanding contribution to the economic vitality and cultural vibrancy of the city.” They set a reopening date for March 2020, just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down businesses across the city and state.  

Luckily, this resilient family was used to changing plans. Thanks to outstanding community support and excitement, they weathered the COVID storm and continue to serve fan favorites like the honey-black pepper chicken wings, prawn and fish cake noodle soup, and mee katang.  Visit their website at www.phnompenhnoodlehouse.com.

This AAPI Heritage Month profile was recommended by Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Community Gardener Coordinator, Bunly Yun