A savory dish of glazed chicken wings with green peppers sits on a white square plate

Intentionalist: Spotlight on Seattle’s Chinatown-International District

by Kristina Rivera

Intentionalist is built on one simple idea: where we spend our money matters. We make it easy to find, learn about, and support small businesses and the diverse people behind them through everyday decisions about where we eat, drink, and shop. #SpendLikeItMatters

In the midst of rising acts of violence against Asian Americans across the United States, it’s easy for us to feel more divided than ever. Reported hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased by 149% since the beginning of the pandemic, with businesses being the primary site of discrimination. Small businesses in Chinatowns nationwide have also been disproportionately affected by anti-Asian rhetoric throughout the pandemic.

But there is one thing we at Intentionalist know for certain: Food and a sense of community have the power to bridge cultural differences and bring us closer together. Chinatowns across the U.S. have historically been places for both of those things, and Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (C-ID) is no different. 

The C-ID overflows with the rich history of immigrants from across Asia. And when you ask many business owners in the C-ID what their favorite part about their neighborhood is, the overwhelming answer is the feeling of community.

Food has always been a bridge and cross-cultural unifier, and now is the perfect time to embrace that. Here are three eateries you can support in the International District.

Three female-presenting individuals stand inside restaurant with arms around each other smiling
Sisters and Phnom Penh owners Diane Le, Darlene Ung, and Dawn Ung inside their restaurant. (Photo: Auriza Lynn Photography)

Phnom Penh Noodle House

For over 30 years, Phnom Penh Noodle House has garnered a robust following because of its flavorful Cambodian food and “Phnom-enal” service. The restaurant was originally opened by Sam Ung, a beloved community member and Cambodian refugee who came to the United States with his wife, Kim, in 1980 after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime. In 1987, he scraped together enough money and opened the first iteration of Phnom Penh Noodle House across the street from Hing Hay Park in the International District. Sam retired in 2013 and passed the torch to his daughters, Dawn Ung, Diane Le, and Darlene Ung, who continued his legacy of sharing Cambodian cuisine with Seattle. In 2018, the three sisters experienced a family tragedy and were forced to close the business, but Dawn, Diane, and Darlene always knew they wanted to get the restaurant up and running again. The Seattle community rallied behind Phnom Penh and helped crowdfund the cost of reopening, allowing the three sisters to open the beloved Cambodian restaurant in March 2020, just blocks away from its original location. 

Their newly-renovated space brings Phnom Penh Noodle House into the modern day but still uses the same recipes Sam learned from his family when he lived in Cambodia. Diane suggests coming to Phnom Penh with friends so you can try a variety of their dishes and said one of her go-to orders is the Battambang’s Favorite Noodle Bowl with a side of loc lac, or marinated beef cubes. 

“[My parents] have come such a long way and have been through so many tough situations to be able to finally move to America and have a successful business. It’s almost like the American Dream. My dad accomplished so much at his tenure at the restaurant — he met several U.S. presidents, cooked for them, wrote a book, and did so much to help the community because giving back was part of who he was.”

— Diane Le

Female-presenting individual stands in front of shelves filled with gold cannisters of tea
Seattle Best Tea co-owner Lydia Lin inside her tea shop. (Photo: Intentionalist)

Seattle Best Tea

Lydia Lin is steeped in the knowledge of tea at her International District store, Seattle Best Tea. One of the oldest tea houses in the city, Lydia and her husband, Joe Hsu, opened their shop in 1996 and have been educating people on the health benefits of tea and providing, well, some of Seattle’s best tea ever since. Lydia is originally from China where tea and the culture surrounding it are important, which is why Lydia sources the highest quality products they can from high altitude mountain regions in Taiwan. Lydia explained that growing the leaves at high altitudes is more beneficial because it allows farmers to grow their plants without pesticides in soil that is healthier and more mineral-rich.

In addition to selling premium loose-leaf varieties, Lydia and Joe sell bubble tea that lives up to the shop’s name. And if you stop by and have any questions about how to steep, store, or pick the right brew for you, Lydia is more than happy to spill the tea.

“[The International District] is like a small world. There are so many different countries and we have all kinds of people here. This is the best place to introduce our cultures.”

— Lydia Lin

A Male-presenting and a female-presenting individual stand in front of a cafe register
Purple Dot Cafe owner Jason Xie and his daughter Carol Xie. (Photo: Carol Xie)

Purple Dot Cafe

Purple Dot Cafe is a classic dim sum and Hong Kong cafe-style restaurant run by Jason Xie and his daughter Carol Xie. Jason and his family immigrated to the United States from Guangzhou in 2013, and his goal was to open a restaurant where his family could work together and help start their lives in the U.S. That same year, he bought and took over The Purple Dot Cafe in the International District from its original owners. Since opening, Carol helped out at the restaurant when she could on weekends and during holidays, but when the pandemic hit, she started running the cafe’s social media accounts to help spread the word about Purple Dot Cafe. She helped create the restaurant’s website and runs their Instagram and Facebook pages, which she said can be hard work in addition to her day job, but it’s all worth it if it means helping her dad out.

With their robust menu, Carol said it’s hard to pick just one of her favorite items off the Purple Dot Cafe menu. Some of the dishes she orders regularly are the French Toast, Chicken Wings, and whatever dim sum items speak to her at that moment, like their Soup Dumplings or Baked Spaghetti.

“All small businesses have a family backed by it, and that’s their main source of livelihood. But also, small businesses come with each family’s passion, so you know that each product — whether it be food, small products, or whatever you can get at a small business — you know that there’s a little bit of heart behind every single thing that you purchase from them.”

— Carol Xie

Kristina Rivera is the marketing and communications coordinator at Intentionalist. She graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in journalism and public relations and has worked with organizations ranging from local nonprofits to global PR firms.

Featured Image: A plate of Phnom Penh Noodle House’s signature Phnom Penh Chicken Wings sauteed with jalapeños and green onions in a sweet black pepper garlic sauce. (Photo: Phnom Penh Noodle House)

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