Two decades before Vietnamese restaurants started sporting suburban addresses, the Lincoln neighborhood around South 38th and Yakima streets introduced Tacoma to Southeast Asian cuisine. In this link, you’ll find snapshot reviews of the Vietnamese and other restaurants in the neighborhood surrounding Lincoln High School (east of Tacoma Mall). But, first, here’s a look at how all those restaurants wound up in a single neighborhood.
In the early 1980s, East Asia Market anchored the neighborhood. Some trace the creation of the Vietnamese eating district to owner Andy Chang and his family, who opened the first version of the Vietnamese grocery store in 1981. The market imported ingredients shoppers previously could not access outside Seattle’s International District. With the introduction of those ingredients and a growing influx of Vietnamese immigrants, the Vietnamese dining district followed. East Asia Market changed locations once before adding “Super” to its name, expanding its inventory, and moving to the former Red Apple Market space just beyond a three-block span that holds a concentration of Vietnamese restaurants like no other in the region.
Asking why so many Vietnamese businesses found a home in Lincoln brings mixed answers. Minh-Anh Hodge, a prominent member of the Vietnamese community, said many Southeast Asians who emigrated to the region found homes in nearby Salishan, the proximity to Lincoln a reason why so many small Vietnamese-owned businesses found customers. The small eateries in the Lincoln District had a cultural draw. They mimicked the style of cafes found in Vietnam. They were, as Hodge characterized, community hubs where locals could catch the story of the day.
During the 1990s and into early 2000, the neighborhood transformed in good ways and bad. A criminal presence escalated to tragedy in 1998 when gang members opened fire in the Trang Dai cafe, leaving five dead, five injured. After that horrific event, Hodge said Vietnamese community members rallied. Meetings with city officials and police convened over meals of soup and spring rolls at cafes in the Lincoln neighborhood.
Thuy-Linh Nguyen, the second-generation operator of the 24-year-old Vien Dong restaurant, remembers her husband, Kevin Le, and other business owners quickly reacting to the Trang Dai shootings by raising money for victims. Today, she said, few mention the Trang Dai massacre beyond its place as a footnote in that neighborhood’s history. That sense of community – the friendliness that prompted her parents to leave Seattle and open Vien Dong in Lincoln – still persists, she said.
The Lincoln business community has had many disruptions from which it has recovered. In 2001, a nearly yearlong bridge closure cut off Lincoln from nearby Tacoma Mall traffic. The closure choked some businesses to near failure. The economic dive in 2008 added more pressure. More businesses struggled, some closed.
In recent years, the neighborhood has eclipsed its reputation as the Vietnamese dining district. Sushi, dim sum, Southern-style soul food, torta sandwiches, burritos and burgers have joined the eclectic eating district to make the Lincoln neighborhood a dining destination like no other in the city.
Looking ahead, neighbors predict an evolving neighborhood, but one still full of Vietnamese-owned businesses. Chang expects to see more upscale restaurants move to the neighborhood, which is now home to small, family-run restaurants that are understated and modest. He said newcomers to Lincoln – such as Pho Dragon and Lobster House – have brought a different level of dining. He also said his shoppers reach well beyond the Southeast Asian community. He sees Filipino, Mexican and Cambodian diners flocking to the Lincoln neighborhood and he expects businesses will follow those demographic lines.
Reviews of Lincoln neighborhood restaurants can be found here.