The Somsniths expand in Asian cuisines
When she thinks of pho, the signature Vietnamese noodle soup, MONE SOMSNITH remembers the pleasant smells of her mother’s kitchen. In November, Somsnith brought those memories alive when she opened her Porters Neck restaurant Pho Vanhly which, roughly translated, means “Mom’s soup.”
“Every Sunday after church my mom would (cook) the noodles,” Somsnith says. “We would come home and have noodles. I want to try and share that with my customers, my friends. It’s my dream since I was growing up.”
Born in Laos, Somsnith immigrated to High Point, North Carolina, thirty years ago with her parents and five siblings. They were sponsored by Forest Hills Presbyterian Church, a generous act that, in Somsnith’s words, “gave us a second life.”
The family was used to hard work. In Laos, they had labored in the rice fields. In their new American hometown, the parents worked two jobs to support their six children and prepare a better life for them, Somsnith says. As the children became young adults, they found jobs in Asian restaurants. Not only did they learn the food service business; they learned the cuisines and flavors of other Asian cultures.
One of her brothers worked in a Japanese restaurant in High Point. Somsnith herself worked in a Thai restaurant. They also drew from the culinary variety of their native land.
“There are a lot of Vietnamese people in my country, so their food becomes as one with Lao food; it’s a mixture,” she says.
Somsnith’s parents wanted their children to be successful in life. The restaurant business seemed a logical path, so the parents decided to start an Asian restaurant.
Ten years ago, the family visited friends in Wilmington and realized the area had potential for them, with a growing population and few Asian eateries. They moved here soon afterward, and the parents launched their first venture, Tokyo 101 in Mayfaire. Somsnith’s brother Toth now operates this Japanese fusion restaurant.
“They set it up for us, so we would have a place,” she says of her parents.
Three years later, the family opened Umaii in Porters Neck, a Thai and sushi eatery run by Lai Somsnith. It took another seven years before Mone Somsnith felt ready to pursue her own dream of a pho eatery. She didn’t have to look far for a location: The new place sits across Market Street from Umaii in the Oak Landing Shopping Center.
The new Vietnamese-inspired restaurant features various pho dishes but offers a broad Lao-Vietnamese menu, including a variety of noodle dishes and other Southeast Asian favorites such as spring rolls, banh mi, and lettuce wraps. The restaurant serves a selection of sakes as well as beer and wine.
Mone Somsnith works seven days a week, managing Pho Vanhly but also helping out at the other two restaurants. With the help of her sushi-chef husband and several of her siblings, she also manages a busy household of two children. She hasn’t taken a vacation since helping found Tokyo 101 ten years ago, but she’s not complaining. The restaurants have done well, even during the COVID-19 downturn, and she loves being an ambassador for Asian cuisines.
“I want people to try and see how each country’s flavors are different,” she explains. “Thai food has a strong flavor; Japanese is light. Vietnamese is in between. I like people to try them out, enjoy them, love them. That’s my goal. It makes me very happy to give that to my friends and customers. I feel blessed that I can make their days happy; it gives me a lot of energy so I don’t feel tired.”
No longer directly involved in their children’s restaurants, the Somsnith parents have a different mission. They spend about six months a year in Wilmington and the remainder of their time in Laos, where they and their children have invested some of the restaurant profits into making life better in their Lao village. An original investment built a water treatment plant; subsequently the family has brought in food, medical supplies, and clothing to residents there.
“We are very thankful that we have a second life here in the States and can give back,” Mone Somsnith says. “We thank our customers who make this possible.”
Somsnith says she has no goals beyond what she and her family have already accomplished.
“I’m focused on making new and regular customers happy,” she adds. “And I am happy. Every day makes me happy. I don’t have any more desires.”
To view more of photographer Aris Harding’s work, go to arisharding.com.
Want more WILMA? Click here to sign up for our WILMA newsletters and announcements.