"How much Hawaiian food can you cook?" Thoa Nguyen asks on the phone. The question is purely rhetorical: She's already said aloha (the good-bye version) to her restaurant the Islander and changed it into her namesake Thoa's, which features the cuisine of her birthplace, Vietnam.
Don't get Thoa wrong: She loves Hawaii. But she's a canny entrepreneur (and matter-of-fact about it). Starting in 1996, she built Seattle's Chinoise franchise, part of the popularization of pan-Asian food cornerstoned by Wild Ginger in its heyday. (She eventually sold two Chinoises, which closed; she continues to run the Queen Anne and Madison Valley branches.) She opened the Islander at the foot of Union Street in 2003, but, she says, "I didn't see it being booming."
Then Thoa returned, for the first time since she was 11, to Vietnam. She traveled all around, which the war prevented when she was a child; she ate and took cooking classes with other chefs, cookbook writers, and various people affiliated with PeaceTrees Vietnam, a landmine-clearing nonprofit operating in the former DMZ. Thoa is on the board of PeaceTrees. She's a clever businessperson, but she also appears to be approximately the nicest person in the world. (If the photograph on the Thoa's website is any indication, she's also a stone fox.)
Thoa thought: "Why wouldn't I do Vietnamese?" She knew: "This is the right thing to do." It sounds like pure instinct, but she did another year and a half of research. One of her friends finally, convincingly, said, "Vietnamese is the new Thai." (This is totally true: Beloved Monsoon paved the way locally for the popularity of Tamarind Tree and the awesome Green Leaf. Recent additions: Monsoon East in Bellevue and Tamarind Tree's new iteration, Long, in the former QUBE space downtown. In the rumor stage: a new Vietnamese restaurant to replace Lower Queen Anne's Moxie.)
Thoa's dining room, with its rounded booths and birds of paradise and elegant fluffy-thatched palapas, looks ready for a musical number involving women in elaborate silk outfits with impressive headdresses. Thoa's lounge, with its rattan furniture and hanging parasols and tropical-blossom art, looks ready for calmly decadent relaxing. One corner has the same view as ART at the posh new Four Seasons across the way: ferries sliding across Elliott Bay, wheeling gulls, red cranes.
The dinner menu isn't as pricey as the surroundings suggest—wok entrées average $15. But if your wallet is looking thin, Thoa's happy hour (Mon–Fri 4–7 pm, all day Sun) deserves its name: bargain-priced beer, wine, sake, and (big) martinis along with treats such as fresh Willapa Bay oyster shooters with wasabi cocktail sauce for $1 each, jicama summer rolls for $5, spicy sesame-chili jewel-red ahi salad for $6. FYI, it's pronounced twahz.