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A Lincoln District icon rooted in pho and lots of love

Vien Dong was opened in 1989 by current owner Linh Le's parents, who were part of the wave of Vietnamese refugees moving to Washington state in the '80s.
Grace Madigan
Vien Dong was opened in 1989 by current owner Linh Le's parents, who were part of the wave of Vietnamese refugees moving to Washington state in the '80s.

Vien Dong is not the oldest restaurant in Tacoma, or even in the Lincoln District. But in its 30-plus years, in a city that’s rapidly changing, it remains an icon.

The restaurant is hard to miss with its big white sign with blue and red lettering. Inside, there's just 12 tables or so. Usually, owner Kevin Le is the one to greet you. But on this particular day, it's his wife, Linh, who is taking a break from the kitchen before the dinner rush.

She ushers me over to where she is sitting with a customer. I had texted to let her know I was going to stop by to speak with some diners.

"Perfect, he’s one of my good customers," Linh said.

Mike Harrison is the customer at the table. He was born and raised in Tacoma.

"Oh I’m really a good customer, every day customer," Harrison said. "I know people that drive here from 25-30 miles, up north from Burien. They come up from Olympia and it is an institution." 

We sit by the walk-in fridge as Kevin delivers steaming hot bowls of pho. Through the windows is South 38th Street, the main drag of the neighborhood.

Finding a home in the Lincoln District

The Lincoln District is Tacoma’s International District. It became racially diverse partially because of redlining, said Kim Davenport, a local historian. During the redlining era in the 30s, the neighborhood was labeled as “yellow” meaning it was in decline.

Over the decades white property owners moved out while people of color moved in. In the '80s, Washington saw a wave of Vietnamese refugees.

"The neighborhood was already a little bit more diverse and welcoming to that diversity," Davenport said.  

Linh’s parents were part of that wave of refugees, arriving in 1984. They found work at a pho restaurant in Seattle, the iconic Pho Bac.

"The owner of Pho Bac and my mom are from the same hometown in North Vietnam so they knew each other. So when they saw my parents, my parents said, 'Okay, let me go work for you and then help out,'" Linh said. "They worked there for a year and a half, before they open up a restaurant." 

A bowl of soup with a clear broth with a plate of sprouts and mint leaves, two glasses of water and a menu behind it.
Grace Madigan
Linh Le's parents worked at Pho Bac in Seattle before opening their own pho restaurant in Tacoma. She met her husband Kevin over a bowl of pho.

That restaurant was Vien Dong, which opened in 1989. Back then, the neighborhood wasn’t as inviting to pedestrians. Later, the legacy of the 1998 Trang Dai massacre, which happened just blocks from the restaurant and left five dead, gave the Lincoln District a bad reputation.

"I remember that it was the business was so slow. People were afraid to come out," Linh said. "It was terrifying." 

More than a decade later, a revitalization project led by the city of Tacoma attempted to inject some life back into the neighborhood. Debbie Bingham works in the city’s community and economic development department.

"In 2013, Lincoln High School was getting ready for their 100-year anniversary. And so it was kind of a catalyst for us to start engaging more in that area," Bingham said. 

Bingham said the city invested almost $10 million into the project. They redid the sidewalks, added benches, and commissioned art for the neighborhood. Over the years, the community's own traditions have drawn in visitors too.

Richard Sjouwke, with the Lincoln District Business Association, said Kevin and Linh have been active in bringing the community together for events like the Lunar New Year.

"I think that's why people think of as Vien Dong is like, the hub of of Lincoln District. Because you feel the energy, you feel the love, you feel that, you feel it in the food," Sjouwke said.

Three people stand in front of a restaurant with a sign above the door that says "Vien Dong." On the left is a Vietnamese woman, in the middle her daughter, and on the right her husband. They're all wearing blue aprons.
Linh Le
This year for Halloween, Kevin, Linh, and their daughter, Gabby went as characters from the TV show 'The Bear." The show is about a family-run restaurant in Chicago that is a beloved staple in its community, much like Vien Dong is to Tacoma.

Gabby Le is Kevin and Linh’s youngest daughter. She might know better than anyone else how hard her parents work, and also how much love goes into the restaurant. Love for their customers, love for the food they make and the love that seems to permeate all around them at Vien Dong.

"Fun fact, like, almost everyone from our family who's married now has met through that, like met one person being a waitress, and then the other person being a customer," Gabby said. "It's crazy. I call it like, the 'Love Spell of Vien Dong.'" 

The list of couples who’ve met at Vien Dong? It includes Linh and Kevin.

"I came out here to say let’s try this pho. That's how we met," Kevin said. "We talked and we asked her out and that's how everything started. It was really really nice."

Linh remembers it differently…

"I actually asked him out," Linh laughed. "I say do you want to go get some pho together? That's how it all begins."

Doesn’t matter who asked who out, because the spell lives on and Tacoma’s better for it.

"Everybody keeps asking me like, 'aren't you tired of working every day doing the same thing?' I say 'actually, I'm looking forward to seeing new faces, new smile." Linh said. "I love what I do."

KNKX Connects is an ongoing series showcasing the people and places of our diverse and vibrant region. Your support helps KNKX connect listeners throughout Western Washington, presenting a much deeper look at the place we call home. Donate to this vital community service today.

Grace Madigan is KNKX's former Arts & Culture reporter. Her stories focused on how people express themselves and connect to their communities through art, music, media, food, and sport.