Globalization Bites: from Saigon with love

The Asian Noodle food cart owners George and Yen Lam pose in the cart’s near Millar Library. Brad Nichols/PSU Vanguard

The Asian Noodle food cart, one of the earliest food carts on Portland State’s campus, first opened its windows over 11 years ago. The owners, George and Yen Lam, originally came to Portland in 1980 and helped Yen Lam’s mother open what they say was the first Vietnamese restaurant in Portland, Saigon Kitchen.

Around the same time, the Lams opened their first food cart, which has been at the same location and serving the same menu for 26 years. Though the Lams second cart has been located many places on campus, including the Science Building when it was still just a park, it is now located at the new food cart pod between Branford Price Millar Library and Blackstone Residence Hall.

The food itself is all traditional Vietnamese fare from the area in and around Saigon where the Lams both grew up. They make meat and vegan versions of traditional pho soups, and all of them are made with homemade vegetable broth. The pickled carrots, peppers and onions are also homemade, with the chili paste using homegrown chilis plucked straight from Yen Lam’s garden.

I tried the Grilled Tofu on Vermicelli Noodles, Vegan Salad Rolls, and Tofu Curry. The grilled tofu was unlike any I any have tasted before. Its texture was firm and its taste both smoky and sweet. I added some of the pickled vegetables and homegrown-chili paste for some heat and fell in love with the dish. The salad rolls and pho were also excellent. The vegetable broth was not too salty and has no MSG. You can almost taste the time and care that went into its preparation. As a self-proclaimed connoisseur of Vietnamese food, this is some of the best I have had.

The Lams came to the United States as refugees at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. “We got out just in the nick of time,” said Yen Lam. In order to escape the communists as the U.S. forces pulled out, the Lams had to take small boats out to international waters to rendezvous with the U.S. Navy.

The Lams were not together at the time, because even though they both grew up in Saigon, they had never met each other. Yen Lam said that her boat was almost overtaken before a faster, bigger boat full of refugees passed them, and as the communists were busy with that boat, hers zipped by the side and made it out.

Both George and Yen Lam witnessed the ditching of helicopters into the ocean. The helicopters would hover, the crew would jump out and swim away, and lastly, the pilot himself would jump out and swim as fast as he could to get away from the falling chopper. “They destroyed at least twenty in front of me,” Yen Lam said. “The pilots looked so scared.”

After arriving in the U.S., Yen Lam went to college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where George Lam met Yen’s parents while he was teaching an English class at a refugee camp. Her parents introduced them and the rest, as they say, is history.