Best pho in the game

Best pho in the game 1

Best pho in the game 1 Photo by Joshua Bessex

Right before where South Jackson Street meets Rainier Avenue South sits the most iconic pho restaurant in the greater Seattle area. Painted red with a white and black trim, Pho Bac is built like a boat, complete with a big pointed nose sticking out past the edge of the indoor seating.

Pho Bac is certainly not the only pho restaurant in the city. Just look at the number of restaurants dotting the Ave that sell the Vietnamese noodle soup. It is, however, the place where Sabzi — one half of the Seattle-based hip-hop group, Blue Scholars — hatched the idea for a project unlike anything he’s done before.

Under the umbrella of his loose artistic collaborative called TOWNFOLK, Sabzi decided to combine hip-hop with video, photography, illustration, and food to express his feelings about pho. He even made a music video called “Pho 99,” which his crew shot at Pho Bac.

So what makes the restaurant so special, besides the dining experience of a seafaring fisherman?

“Their broth is like crazy tight,” Sabzi said.

With the help of photographer Canh Solo, they created a poster of the ingredients of pho in a grid, inspired by a poster for a Yakuza gangster film where the machinery inside of a gun was laid out in similar fashion. It’s a simple yet iconic design they thought about doing for a Blue Scholars project, but came back to for “Pho 99.” After going shopping for the pho fixings, Solo made the poster on his living room floor.

“I just laid them on the ground on white paper … stood on top of a stool, and photographed each ingredient separately overhead,” Solo said.

From there, the idea blossomed, and soon enough, an illustrated poster, buttons, chopsticks, stickers, and more came into the project.

“The pho restaurant culture — it’s just a rich culture in and of itself — is a crucial part of being from Seattle, as well as many other places too,” Sabzi said. “The rest kind of wrote itself.”

The creation

With an idea and a mockup in place, TOWNFOLK just needed the money to create the art.

For that, Sabzi turned to Kickstarter, a website for crowdsourced fundraising. The concept is to ask for pledges with an overall monetary goal to be reached by a certain date. If the goal is reached, the pledgers are charged for that money and the project is created and shipped out. If the effort falls short, nobody is charged. Blue Scholars used the same process to successfully fund their album Cinemetropolis, which they released independently in 2011 after raising more than $60,000.

“Honestly I don’t know how many people want those posters,” Sabzi said. “So if we can presell the idea, then we know we break even before we spend any money, and that’s why.”


To help promotion, Sabzi also released a hip-hop song and music video. After spending most of his career producing hip-hop, he rapped in a recorded song for the first time.

“I’ve just never put anything out because I never thought I was very good as a rapper,” Sabzi said. “I was better at making beats than rapping. I’ve been super into it since I was quite young.”

It’s meant to be funny and ridiculous, and that adds to the laid-back and fun feeling of the project.
Louisa Meng, officer of the UW Hip Hop Student Association, thought it was artistically sound as well.

“I would give it an A,” she said. “Me and my friend saw it together and it definitely made us laugh.”

With four days to go in his Kickstarter fundraiser, Sabzi has exceeded his goal: Over 280 supporters pledged over $7,500 toward his goal of $5,000. People are still welcome to pledge, and they will receive products from the project based on how much money they donate. A minimum of $25 is needed as a pledge to receive a poster.

The result

When Sabzi came to Solo with the idea, Solo jumped at it quickly. He invited other friends into the project and as a team they pieced the project together.

Nina Nguyen pitched in for the illustrations, Harry Clean helped with the video, and of course even Pho Bac did its part.
“I had always wanted to something that was a collaboration, cross-disciplinary,” Solo said. “It was really good to organize it and to see it from the sketches to the finished project, to the Kickstarter.”

This mixture of different arts also makes it an ideal project for Kickstarter since there are a number of things one can pledge for. So many different options can attract a wider base of consumers.

“It’s something people can all relate to,” Meng said. “They can buy stickers, buy pins and whatever … and people can identify each other like, ‘Yeah, I like pho too!’ They give you a lot of different outlets for that.”

For Sabzi, the soup gave him the perfect excuse to try out something he’d never experimented with as an artist.

“Personally, having the guts to do something so nerdy, and just wondering whether people are gonna like it,” he said, was his biggest fear about the project. “I think it’s a success, so I think I’m gonna do something even nerdier next time.”

Reach contributing writer Walker Orenstein at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @walkerorenstein

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