Phnom Penh’s long and storied Vancouver run is a testimony to the power of family

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      From difficult times that started with a terrifying exodus from Cambodia to the ongoing triumph that is Vancouver’s Phnom Penh, one message has endured: nothing is more important than family.

      To visit the landmark Chinatown restaurant on a sunsoaked spring day is to see that guiding philosophy in action. As Solange Huynh recounts the four-decade history of Phnom Penh, her sister Cathy sits at a nearby table, handrolling the restaurant’s fabled Chả Giò spring rolls. On any given day, you’ll find different generations of the extended Huynh family—kids, parents, cousins, in-laws—serving customers, working the front of the room, and overseeing the creation of classic Vietnamese and Cambodian offerings in the kitchen.

      On this early Monday afternoon, Phnom Penh is packed. Outside on the street, a group of heavily tattooed tourist dudes queue up for a table, wondering if the rest of their day should be spent on the North Shore mountains or a ferry to the island. Inside, the restaurant buzzes with energy, many tables filled with familiar faces.

      “Some of our customers have been coming here for three or four generations, so it’s like a home for them,” Huynh says. “They know that the food we make is from our hearts.”

      Now in her sixties, Huynh has been working at Phnom Penh right from the beginning in 1985, when her mother and father somehow scraped together enough money to open a restaurant following years of struggling as immigrants in a new country.

      While always busy in the past—with members of the Vietnamese and Cambodian community at first, and then all Vancouverites when word began to spread—Phnom Penh has watched business go stratospheric in the past couple of years.

      For that, thank two Michelin Guide Bib Gourmand nods, as well as continued accolades in the Vancouver press. This year brings Best Restaurant in Chinatown/Strathcona and Best Chicken Wings wins in the Straight’s Golden Plates Awards.

      Because reservations are only for large groups, to get a table at Phnom Penh, you often end up putting your name on a list and waiting in a line.

      “Sometimes there is a long wait,” Huynh says. “I always feel sorry for the customers when they come to eat and then they have to wait for one and a half hours.”

      When it’s suggested that, sometimes, a wait builds delicious anticipation, Huynh laughs—which she does often, and says, “For me, one hour—then I don’t wait any more.”

      Take the lineups and then factor in the nonstop parade of food-delivery-app packages coming out of the kitchen, and the question becomes an obvious one: given the level of demand at Phnom Penh, why not expand?

      Huynh argues that would come with a cost.

      For over a decade, the family had a second location on Broadway which, although always busy, somehow didn’t feel right. So when the lease came up, a decision was made, with Huynh’s mother and Phnom Penh cofounder making the call.

      “When we closed it down, my mom said, ‘We’re just going to keep one restaurant. And that’s so you can all be together rather than split.’ People always ask, ‘Why don’t you open another restaurant in Richmond or Coquitlam, and one of your brothers or sisters can run it?’ But my mom does not agree. Even now she says this: ‘You all need to be together.’”

      Murray Huynh, Parker Huynh, Katrina Huynh: Phnom Penh is a restaurant where new generations build on the legacy.
      Gloria Wong.

      LOOKING BACK, HUYNH, has nothing but the highest level or respect for her mother and father. They instilled in her values that she’s passed onto her children and still lives by today.

      “I’m very proud of my parents,” she says. “They were like, ‘When you start a new life, you have to work hard—nothing can beat working hard. In the beginning, you will get small money, but work hard and you can get big money.’”

      The family story here starts in Cambodia, where Huynh’s grandfather was a successful chef in the city of Phnom Penh. Life changed overnight in the ’70s when Pol Pot came to power, unleashing a wave of genocide as he forced Cambodia’s urban population from cities into the countryside, where they were given a choice.

      “Everyone in Phnom Penh was pushed out in two days,” recalls Huynh, who was in her early teens at the time. “It was, ‘Go, or you will get shot.’ When you got to a village it was, ‘Join the community, as we will give you a piece of land. Or you can leave the country.’ Some people thought, ‘Take the land, and we can maybe later go back to the city.’ But my dad felt there was no hope.”

      Along with her parents and siblings, Huynh fled Cambodia for Vietnam on foot, hiding in the jungle for weeks. Even today, the experience is raw and traumatizing.

      “I was 13, almost 14, and I remember my parents being worried because we were teenagers,” Huynh says, recalling her parents making her and her sisters look dirty so they wouldn’t attract the attention of soldiers.

      The decision to flee to Vietnam, where the family had roots, turned out to be the right one. Determined to transform Cambodia into a classless agrarian society of uneducated farmers, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge killed somewhere between 1.5 and three million people. Huynh’s grandfather had run a successful restaurant in Phnom Penh, which would have made the extended family a target.

      By 1979, Huynh’s oldest brother and uncle had landed in Vancouver as part of the boat exodus from Vietnam, which was still reeling economically from war.

      When her uncle applied to sponsor her aunt and two kids moving to Canada, Huynh went along to the immigration office as a translator. She casually asked what it would take to get her own immediate family greenlighted for a move to Canada.

      “I told the immigration officer, ‘My brother has been in Canada only three months. Do you know when my brother could sponsor us to Vancouver so we can all be together?’ He asked, ‘Do you really want to be together there?’ and I said, ‘Of course, but we have no way to get there, because I don’t think my brother is qualified to sponsor all seven of us.’”

      Huynh continues with: “The immigration officer said, ‘Okay. Let me draw a family tree.’ After that he gave me a stack of papers and told me, ‘Go home. Fill them out. And then bring them to me tomorrow. And bring your whole family with you.’”

      Today, she still recalls the kindness of that officer. Three months after meeting with him the next day, all paperwork filled out, the Huynh family received a letter telling them they’d be approved for immigration to Canada. And then the real struggle started.

      AN 18-YEAR-OLD HUYNH arrived in Canada with her parents and siblings on December 7, 1979. She recalls having nothing.

      “The day after we got to Canada I had to go to find a job,” she says. “One of my uncle’s friends took me to Pacific Centre mall and said, ‘Apply for anything, and no matter what they ask you, say, ‘I have experience.’ The first one I applied for was Orange Julius. But I was not qualified because I had no experience, so they didn’t call me back.”

      Knowing there was a family of seven to support, her mother took a job as a seamstress, with Huynh and her sister hired to help out with ironing.

      Adjusting to a new life in Canada wasn’t easy, and the family struggled to get by for years.

      “When you leave Vietnam, you leave everything behind,” she says. “They tell you, ‘You can go’, but you can’t take money. So you have no property—no nothing. We were lucky that, when we arrived at the airport, the Red Cross was there to give us clothes.”

      Huynh continues with: “My dad had been working in an office in the airport in Vietnam, so he wasn’t used to doing labour work. It was very hard for him, but he started out doing gardening help for a year. Then he decided, ‘We have to do something as a business.’”

      So, before there was Phnom Penh at 244 East Georgia, there was a small storefront operation, run by Huynh’s parents, selling noodles and other comfort food, on the same block. For two years in the early ’80s, it was a go-to destination for Vancouver’s growing Vietnamese community—people looking for a connection to their former homeland.

      “It was still hard,” Huynh says, “but at least we had something that was ours.”

      When the city shut the location down—there was a problem with permitting, mainly that there wasn’t any—the family eventually opened up another location across the street. As demand grew, her father realized they were going to need another space, taking over an abandoned coffee bar next door. All of the family’s savings would go into the Phnom Penh that still exists today, Huynh proudly noting that her father helped install things like the original wainscoting that still runs along the restaurant walls.

      “We’ve done a lot of renovating here, but that’s one thing he never let us remove,” Huynh says. “He did a good job. Thirty-five years later, it’s still here.”

      While the accolades have piled up, and the crowds have grown over the decades, one thing has remained a constant since Phnom Penh opened in 1985.

      “We are old-school,” Huynh laughs, noting that description covers everything from the food to the way orders are delivered to the kitchen. “If we used computers for orders, the older workers in the kitchen wouldn’t know how to work them.”

      Gloria Wong.

      IN A FORWARD-THINKING food city where fusion has become an obsession, Phnom Penh is a throwback, the restaurant billing itself as a destination for those looking for “exotic Cambodian and Vietnamese food.”

      Expect to find everything from traditional deep-fried frog’s legs to the insanely addictive marinated butter beef (aka No. 71), served carpaccio-style with a mix of cilantro, soy, garlic, soy, and vinegar. The Cambodian-style noodles section features 19 different options, spanning Mì Tôm Viên (homemade prawn balls with egg noodles) to Hủ Tiếu Bò Viên (beef balls with rice noodles). Vietnamese dishes cover Bánh Tằm Bì (Mekong Delta street-food favourite spaghetti with shredded pork and fish sauce), Cua Rang Muối (choice of spicy chili garlic or tamarind crab), and Đùi Gà Nướng xã (barbecued lemongrass chicken legs). Then there are those addictive chicken wings.

      Huynh reflects that her mother instilled a deep love of cooking in her daughters. That’s been passed onto their children; Cathy’s son Murray Huynh can be found working beside his father Peter in the kitchen, preparing dishes steeped in tradition.

      “Sometimes,” she says, “I’ll ask our long-time customers, ‘What do you think of the new generation we’ve got cooking?’ They say that they are happy that the food is still the same.”

      Huynh points to award-winning Ahn and Chi on Main Street as a great example of how new generations come up and reshape the vision of their parents, putting a modern spin on traditional food. But for now, Phnom Penh is committed to giving its customers dishes that have been in the family for decades.

      “We don’t have to change because we are still doing very good business,” Huynh says. “The next generation will have to wait until this idea doesn’t work anymore. I always tell them, ‘You can change the system once we are not here—bring in things like computers.’ But not the menu.”

      She is grateful that the next generation appreciates what it has with Phnom Penh.

      “I tell my kids, ‘It’s not easy to start a restaurant with your bare hands. You guys have it easier because there is a foundation already, and that’s because the family—our parents—started this with our bare hands, and then built that foundation strong with a lot of hard work. We are lucky—all the brothers and sisters—that we have good children who have good attitudes and manners and know how to work hard.”

      And, perhaps even more importantly, they understand what helped build Phnom Penh into the institution it is today: the power of family.

      “All the brothers and sisters get along, and all the kids, the cousins, they are very close together,” Huynh says. “Some of our customers have been eating here for 25 years. And they tell me, ‘I really admire your family.’ I tell them, ‘This is what my mom and dad passed onto us—that you stay close.”

      When the family  escaped from Cambodia to Vietnam, walking a month and a half through the jungle, what it was most scared of, she reveals, was being separated.

      “One of my sisters went missing for 10 hours, and, wow, we were so scared that we would never see her again,” Huynh recounts. “Through it all, my mom would continually tell us, ‘Stay together. Stay together.’ And that’s what we do today. We stay together.”

      Gloria Wong.