Sam Ung’s story is the quintessential American Dream tale. Once a victim of the brutal Khmer Rouge in the 1970s in his native Cambodia, he had the opportunity to come to Seattle with the one goal of putting the past behind him and rebuilding his life. For years, he spent his days working 16 to 18-hour shifts, learning about the restaurant business and saving money. Ung is now the well-known founder of Phnom Penh Noodle House on King Street in the ID.
As one of the only Cambodian restaurants in Seattle, Phnom Penh has scored high on taste and customer relationships since opening in 1987. Though distinct in spices and ingredients, many dishes are comparable to Thai and Vietnamese cuisine.
The atmosphere is friendly, often crowded with regular customers. The vibe is casual and comfortable as patrons sit down to generous portion sizes and hearty food.
The many options for rice noodle soups are the perfect comfort food for Seattle’s chilly, rainy days. The special rice noodles are made with gulf prawn, calamari, fish cakes, fish balls and ground pork along with an assortment of vegetables. Another popular soup is the Cambodian beef noodle, consisting of a beef stew with sate sauce. Numerous meat entrées, vegetarian dishes and rice dishes are also offered.
The family-run business is now under the yoke of Ung’s daughter, Dawn Cropp and her sister. Larger than a typical mom-and-pop shop, up to 120 people can be served.
The interior is heavily decorated with traditional Chinese and Cambodian-themed décor and includes mementos of the Ung’s personal history. Placed in the front of the restaurant is a rugged brown sack of heavily faded items, the only possessions Ung had when he emigrated from Cambodia as a refugee in 1980. This included a small notebook of recipes Ung had memorized from the time before the war when he worked in his parent’s restaurant. He had dreams to open his own establishment one day.
In addition to being a successful business owner, Ung is the author of “I Survived the Killing Fields,” in which he documents life under the Khmer Rouge. It is available for sale at the restaurant, the Wing Luke Museum and on Amazon. In it, he recounts his painful memories, tracking his career from a war refugee who couldn’t speak English to the respected figure he has now become in the International District.
“Never forget who you are and where you come from” is the message Ung hopes to send in his book to his grandchildren. He watched his family lose everything they owned and nearly starve to death. The Khmer takeover meant living in a grass hut, enduring multiple deaths and horrendous conditions as families were forced to work in the fields for long hours with meager compensations.
Yet, he remains proud of his story and humble beginnings. As a result, the strong work ethic employed at Phnom Penh, combined with the traditional ambience, has made the well-known restaurant the favorite of countless customers in the community.
Phnom Penh Noodle House is located at 660 South King Street, Seattle, WA 98104.