Serving quick, authentic Vietnamese food, Pho King Express on Park Place is one of the newest and most popular additions to Atlanta’s downtown lunch scene. In addition to staples like banh mi, the restaurant offers many vegetarian options as well — a rarity for Vietnamese cuisine.
It’s also run by the daughter of a CIA spy.
A native of Huế, Vietnam, Mai Duong moved to the U.S. with her family when she was 13, fleeing the Communist regime that had taken control of their country 20 years earlier. Duong’s father, a Vietnamese civilian, worked for the CIA during the Vietnam War, for which the new government imprisoned him for more than six years.
Intending to create a new life for themselves, they came over through the United Nations’ Orderly Departure Program, which helped nearly 500,000 Vietnamese citizens resettle in America in response to the refugee crisis that had arisen after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
After a brief stay in Atlanta, the family relocated to nearby Morrow, Ga. She learned to cook Vietnamese food from her family, a hobby that barely simmered until she came to Georgia State.
“A group of friends at Georgia State introduced me to vegetarianism,” Duong said. “Not many people know how to cook vegetarian Vietnamese food, so I just had to figure it out myself.”
In 2009, Duong began attending the Chùa Hải Ấn Buddhist temple in Lake City, Ga., and soon took up the weekly task of cooking for about 40 people. While it was a labor of love, it also showed her the power of food to unite people together.
“I really valued the sense of community,” Duong said. “It’s so rewarding to help others by feeding them and teaching them how to prepare healthier versions of their favorite dishes.”
After graduating from Georgia State, Duong took a job as the payroll accountant and truck dispatcher at a company owned by a friend she met at the temple. After two years, she went out on her own, starting the trucking company Lotus Carriers.
However, she never quit honing her vegetarian take on Vietnamese food and sharing her creations at the temple. It was there she met Khou Vuong, the owner of the Pho King location in Midtown. He offered Duong the chance to learn the restaurant business before she fully committed herself to pursuing her dream of opening her own Vietnamese restaurant.
After working together for two years, Duong and Vuong decided to open a new location. Duong knew exactly what part of the city she wanted to serve.
“I built Pho King Express to give Panthers a comfortable place to get fresh, healthy food,” she said. “This is like my second home.”
Photo by Steven Thackston