If you're looking for a bowl of khao poon noodles, pad thai or even basic Chinese beef and broccoli, Hoopa might not be the first place you look. But Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to around 7 p.m., it's not unusual to see a line of cars, some from Willow Creek and Orleans, pulling up to the Hoopa Trading Post to pick up those dishes and more from Young's Kitchen. On an average day, some 60 customers might come through for Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and Chinese food delivered curbside by Nathan Phetsouphanh and his wife Amanda Young Phetsouphanh. On a busy day, according to Nathan, it's closer to 100.
Since December, they've been hauling in propane — as Hoopa doesn't have natural gas lines — and cooking in the Trading Post's commercial kitchen, where, as long as they operate according to the tribal food code established in 2003, they can run their business legally and rent free. While they do have food-handling licenses, on sovereign land and under the Hoopa Valley Tribe's regulations, they didn't have to navigate the same red tape, taxes and fees required elsewhere in Humboldt County. It's an advantage Nathan and Amanda say is allowing them to start their business and help feed a community, even in a pandemic.
"It was a way to connect with our parents," Nathan says of the business. He recalls how, when he was growing up in Arcata, his mom, who was Thai and Lao, would cook enormous pots of pho and other soups, and invite neighborhood children to eat. "That's how all these kids in my neighborhood became my brothers and sisters," he says. "All these kids — Mexican kids and Black kids and Indian kids — all eating from one big pot."
Food was a profession in his family, too, and Nathan spent his childhood in the kitchen at the former Lui's Chinese Restaurant on Fourth Street in Eureka watching his parents cook. After immigrating in 1989 from Thailand, his father, Sone Phetsouphanh, worked in a number of Chinese restaurants around Humboldt, and Nathan himself previously owned Hong's Thai Food in Fortuna. Now the father and son cook together at the Trading Post. Nathan's mother, Ann Phetsouphanh, who died in 2017, is a legacy presence in the kitchen, too, having taught Amanda to make the Vietnamese dishes on the menu.
"My family just loves food," laughs Amanda, who learned to cook at a young age from her father, Gary Young, who was Hupa and Yurok, and died in 2018. She and Nathan met 14 years ago and have been together since, and share a home in Hoopa that's been in her family for generations with his father and their three children. It's a gathering place for local and visiting family, and after years of encouragement over reunion feasts, the couple heard about the commercial kitchen at the Trading Post and decided to give the business a try.
"We did a test run first and we wanted to see if the valley ended up liking our food and it just grew from there," says Amanda. Nathan recalls one patron telling him, "You guys need to come back every week or we're just gonna go to your house and get it from there." Making the business more permanent was possible, he says, "because you don't have to jump through hoops and you don't get taxed ... It's helping people survive right now, especially during the pandemic."
The Trading Post, opened in September of 2019 and now nearly finished with construction, is some 6,700 square feet, 4,500 of which is market space for Native vendors of all kinds. Bonny Abarr, small business advocate for the Hoopa Valley Tribe under its Department of Commerce, says there's a limit of 20 vendors due to COVID-19 and each of their stalls has been outfitted with a Plexiglas barrier.
"We're there to help Native small businesses expand and get started," says Abarr, who notes Young's Kitchen is probably the most successful venture at the moment. It's a welcome addition to the slim pickings in the area, where the Burger Barn is the only restaurant and the arrival of a grocery store in 2019 was cause for celebration and relief. Along with use of the kitchen, the Trading Post will also occasionally share non-perishable ingredients with Young's. "Anything that will make people money, we're happy to have them use it," says Abarr.
Danny Jordan, the Hoopa Valley Tribe's self-governance coordinator and director of commerce, says that approach is part of a "traditional Indian economy." He likens the free commercial kitchen to the cannery that operated in the valley with the boarding school in the 1950s and allowed community members to use the facilities to preserve and share food. "An Indian economy is a provider system, not a capitalist system," he says, explaining that rather than being solely driven by monetary value, there's a focus on how one is helping the community. "It fits Indian life. It's pretty cool."
At the Trading Post, Jordan says, "When we have people coming to markets and they're trading and getting along, they're not just making money, they're helping families." That includes artisans making traditional crafts and single mothers selling baked goods. Allowing them free use of the facilities also keeps prices down for local consumers.
Young's Kitchen, Jordan says, makes it easy. "They are just the most self-regulated group. ... They are very conscientious about how they prepare their food, how they deal with customers," and setting up safety protocols. (Jordan is also a fan of the egg rolls and cheese puffs.)
Nathan and Amanda say they try to keep the food affordable, and the most expensive dish — a generous rice plate with main dish that can serve two, with an egg roll and cheese puffs — comes in at $10. Now and then, someone might donate vegetables or eggs, and they've traded meals for regalia and other goods from other vendors at the weekend market. "It's the Native barter system," says Amanda. "Everybody here is family so everybody looks out for each other."
For Amanda, in a time of isolation, Young's Kitchen also offers connection, however fleeting, as they pass packages of noodles and spring rolls to drivers.
"It's a lot of fun cooking for a lot of people ... that I grew up with, that knew my parents and my grandparents ... people from the kids' school," she says.
Some evenings, after they shut down the kitchen, they also drop off free food to elders. Nathan, who considers good food to be "a human right," says he enjoys seeing people's appreciation for the food, especially the home-style dishes he grew up on, like the big pots of pho his mother made for the neighborhood kids.
"This pandemic has really shown how important community is," he says.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
The Community Voices Coalition is a project funded by Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation to support local journalism. This story was produced by the North Coast Journal newsroom with full editorial independence and control.