by Jacob Uitti
Mai Truong, co-owner and operator of the Columbia City restaurant, bar, and pool hall, Billiard Hoang, escaped Vietnam in 1981 on a boat. Fleeing from the Saigon region of the Communist State, Truong landed on the West Coast. She later arrived in Seattle where, in 1987, she helped open her establishment, which today serves some of the most appreciated traditional Vietnamese food in the Emerald City.
That the roots of the eatery are so harrowingly tied. Vietnam informs the feel and vibe of the well-worn establishment. While there are myriad delicious and fabulous Asian restaurants in Seattle — especially concentrated in the International District — dining at the authentic Billiard Hoang feels like you’re spending time in a whole new land, which, these days, can be an especially welcomed experience.
Inside, you hear regularly the crack of pool balls, the twang of native Vietnamese and the laughs and comradery of folks who’ve had a few beers and see each other often to watch football games or tell stories. In fact, Truong cares about her regulars so sincerely that she refuses to carry hard liquor on her shelves, other than light beer and wine.
“I see my people every day and if something were to happen, that would make me very sad,” Truong said of her spot, which is located on the busy Martin Luther King Jr. Way across from the Columbia City light rail station. “They can come here, eat my food, drink beer and they’ll be okay.”
While spirits are absent, spirit isn’t. And that essence is most prevalent in the menu. The fare is hearty and homey, whether you’re looking for one of their satisfying (and cheap) Banh Mi sandwiches (ranging from grilled pork to sardines to meatballs), vermicelli noodle bowls (some of which come garnished with egg rolls), traditional noodle soups or their two-pound fried chicken appetizer.
“My generation — we have no education, we didn’t have much money at all,” Truong said. “But I have a big family. So when we started the pool hall, we borrowed a little bit from everybody and opened. Before, we only had sandwiches and coffee. But we’ve been adding more and more ever since.”
Some of the top-selling dishes, Truong says, include the bamboo duck soup, egg noodle soup with barbeque pork and lemongrass chicken with white rice. The food, which is served from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. (and sometimes even later) is prepared by a back-of-the-house staff led by Truong’s family, including her sister and cousins. And their plates are gobbled up by hungry patrons day in and day out.
The place is so busy during meal times, Truong and company recently made the decision to remove two of the gaming tables and add extra seating. It’s an obvious sign that the investment she and her family made three decades ago is paying off and will continue to do so for years to come.
“I love it here,” Truong says. “It’s freedom.”
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Featured Image: Billiard Hoang Sports Bar and Vietnamese Cuisine. (Photo: Aaron Burkhalter)