The American dream. It’s that shining ideal that promises success to those that work hard and persevere. To many it might just be no more than a tired old cliché, but to others it’s as concrete an idea as the daily rise and fall of the sun. There are countless stories of immigrants coming to America and making their dream a reality, of which the Ma family’s is but one shining example.
Welcome to Pho Jasmine, a north Portland staple for over fifteen years. For the uninitiated, Pho is pronounced fuh, and refers to a type of Vietnamese noodle soup that is typically constructed using beef stock, meat, vegetables, and noodles.
Jasmin Ma is the daughter of Pho Jasmine’s owners, Hong Hyunh and Truc Ma. Due to her parent’s language constraints, Jasmin represented them in speaking with Portland Metro Live. It’s obvious after spending some time with her, however, that this is definitely a family business. She’s obviously passionate about the business and knows it well.
Upon immigrating to the United States, Ma’s parents originally moved to Houston, where her father opened up a corner market and her mother worked in the beauty supply business. While the promise of the American dream was real, it wasn’t long before they realized that their dream wouldn’t become a reality in Texas.
“Portland is very different from Texas,” Ma says matter-of-factly. “The people here are a lot friendlier. I remember my mom telling me that in Texas there’s no such thing as saying hi to your neighbor and bringing them a bag of bread. It’s nicer here and it just feels more like a community.”
Jasmine’s father Truc Ma always had a dream of opening a restaurant, but there would be challenges. “My whole family likes to cook and eat,” she says, “but when we first opened the restaurant it was hard on us. We didn’t know how to find workers. We used to live upstairs because we weren’t sure if we had enough money.”
The sense of community that they loved so much about Portland would prove to be a crucial factor in the success of the family business. “One day one of our customers came in and he noticed how difficult of a time we were having,” Ma says. “He was a regular and one day he said he could help us find workers. He ended up helping us a lot. Here was a total stranger coming in, seeing our struggle, and helping to pick us up.”
Now fifteen years later, Pho Jasmine is a staple of the neighborhood and those original struggles are a thing of the past. Situated on Killingsworth just east of Interstate 5 and across from Portland Community College (PCC), Pho Jasmine used to be in one of the shadiest neighborhoods in north Portland. Fortunately, it seems that the struggles of the neighborhood have gotten better with age.
“The neighborhood has changed big time,” Ma says emphatically. “When we came here it was a really bad neighborhood. I remember seeing people just standing in the streets doing their thing. Since I was raised in that type of environment it didn’t confuse me, but now it’s so different. PCC used to be just one building and now they have buildings everywhere. The neighborhood has gotten a lot better.”
One of the beautiful things about Vietnamese food is the number of vegetarian options available. According to Ma, folks looking for meatless meals are their most frequent customers.
“We get a lot of vegetarian customers,” she says, putting an emphasis on a lot. “They love our vegetarian pho and our curry vegetarian pho. When I’m taking orders those are by far the most popular items I see. There’s some customers we don’t even give menus to anymore, they just come in and say ‘same thing’ and we know exactly what to make them.”
The familiarity with the business comes with a well-known neighborhood name, but one can’t help but wonder if that name was based off of Jasmin herself, despite no “e” at the end of her name. “It is named after me,” she says with a smile. “My name is actually misspelled. My mom isn’t a strong English speaker so that’s why there’s no ‘e’ at the end of my name. When she was naming the restaurant she didn’t want to look stupid and have a restaurant with no ‘e’ at the end. I said you’ve got to be unique, but she wanted it spelled correctly,” she finishes with a shrug.
Considering the restaurant is named after her and she plays such a big role in daily operations, will Ma end up taking over the family business? “My parents think they’re too old to have future plans,” she says with a smile as she looks over at her mom standing behind the counter. “I’m telling you though, the restaurant isn’t going anywhere. If I have time I will take it over and keep it in the family.”
Even though that time may be years away, Ma has big plans for her vision of Pho Jasmine. “I have this crazy idea that’s kind of like Chipotle,” she explains. “I was noticing that customers would come in and order pho, but they wouldn’t want tripe in it, or maybe they wouldn’t want onion. They always want to customize it, so I just think that allowing people to pick what they want would be something new. Kind of like an Asian Chipotle,” she finishes with a laugh.
Her ideas don’t stop at the food either. “I think if I was to own it, I would make it more this generation,” she says. “This generation is more social and it’s really about the look, modernizing the look. It’s also across the street from the school so I would want to make the food more express and fast.”
Ma’s passion breaks through as she speaks, and it’s apparent that her love for Portland doesn’t run only skin deep. “I love Portland,” she says without hesitation. “We’ve got all four seasons. During the fall there’s orange leaves. In the winter we get a little snow. During the spring there’s cherry blossoms and in the summer we get the sun. We’re here to stay.”
Residents of north Portland and the surrounding areas will be happy to hear that. The Ma family provides warmth not just in their food, but in how they interact with the community. This is a family that is all smiles and wants nothing more than to make sure they have the most satisfied customers around, and their customers couldn’t be happier about that.
Pho Jasmine is located at:
714 N Killngsworth Street
Portland Oregon 97217
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is a published author and journalist who has been writing professionally for over nine years. He currently works from his home in Vancouver, Washington and is excited to bring you the best that the Portland restaurant scene has to offer.