Vietnamese cuisine outgrows the market
June 9, 2008 · Updated 6:45 PM
"It sits on downtown Winslow's busiest intersection, looking a little like a bus stop. And for the businesses that have occupied it, the tiny booth on the northeast corner of Winslow Way and Madison Avenue has indeed been a temporary shelter.Most of them have gone away. Some have moved on and thrived elsewhere. The present occupant, Emmy's VegeHouse, definitely intends to be among the survivors.We need to find something a little bit bigger with a couple of indoor tables, said Hong Nguyen, who operates the Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant with her mother, Emmy Tran.They're not worried about finding customers. They've been offering their food at the Bainbrige Island Farmers' Market for a decade.Some seven years ago, Emmy made the decision to become a vegetarian. She changed her restaurant menu accordingly, and business jumped.I became vegetarian and started feeling better, Tran said. And animals have their own rights. Why do we eat them?Nguyen said that islanders are very conscious of eating healthy food, and took to the vegetarian menu immediately. In fact, some found their Saturday morning breakfast so addicting that they couldn't face a winter without their Vietnamese tofu fix.The people who came weekly for breakfast said 'what are we going to do in the winter and during the week?' Nguyen said. So we found this place.The tiny booth, sitting on the street-side of the diagonal walkway in front of the old Lundgren Station, can barely accommodate the two women working together. Space constraints limit their menu to about a dozen items, which can either be taken out or eaten at the three plastic patio tables set up under the walkway.There are lots of vegetarian dishes, but we don't have room to make them, Nguyen said. And we can't offer service.The restaurant is as close to an all-hours affair as Bainbridge offers. It is open weekdays from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., on Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. until 7 p.m. and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. They're aware that during the winter, customers are going to be less inclined to sit outside and eat. And, they say, the sight of people sitting at the outside tables brings in business. So they're hoping to find a new spot soon.While moving from the Farmers Market to a full-time booth and perhaps a restaurant may seem like big steps, they can hardly compare to the journey the family has already taken.Owners of a successful fishing business in Vietnam, the family fled the country in 1983 after the communist regime took over their business. They escaped to Hong Kong in their boat, then made their way to Kitsap County.One day, Diane Firestone of Bainbridge Island knocked on the door of their apartment in Poulsbo and asked Tran if she wanted work. She did, and began cleaning houses on the island. That led her to cooking for those families, which eventually led to the Farmers' Market.(The family is not related either to Tina Nguyen, who owns Simon's Chinese restaurant in the Pavilion, or to the Tran family that owns Sawatdy Thai Cuisine in Island Center.)The long-range plan is to bring cousins who are still in Vietnam into the business. The Nguyen family is sponsoring those cousins' applications for resident-alien status, and Tran said she believes the decade-long process in nearly complete. They run a restaurant in Vietnam. They're great cooks, Nguyen said.Nguyen will continue to work in the restaurant for the time being, but will use every spare moment to continue her education. She graduated from the University of Washington last year, and plans to become an optometrist. Her three siblings have also graduated from college, and all work in the high-tech industry in San Jose, Calif.Emmy Tran, though, isn't going anywhere.I know people all over this island, she said. People pound on my window here, they feel like my family. "