Exiled from her native Vietnam at 9 years old, there wasn’t much Phan Voong could take with her as she was forced to leave her home.
She and her family were political refugees, fallout from conflict between the Chinese and Vietnamese governments in the late 1970s. They, along with numerous others, were loaded onto an overcrowded fishing boat and shipped to a camp in Hong Kong.
But, what Voong lacked in material possessions she made up for in another area — knowledge.
Her cooking skills were invaluable to her, and paved the way for a career that now pays her bills and has become a way of life.
Voong, now a 42-year-old Dinosaur resident, located about 90 miles west of Craig, said her mother taught her how to prepare traditional Chinese food. Both of her parents were Chinese, and their daughter was expected to cook.
“It’s passed on — tradition really,” she said.
Although she still prepares the meals taught to her by her mother, the food she now serves to the people of Dinosaur is a bit different.
“Our traditional foods are very different,” she said. “I don’t think you guys would eat it.”
Voong helped open Terrace Chinese Take Out on Jan. 1 in Dinosaur.
Although she doesn’t own the eatery located at 320 Brontosaurus Blvd., it is her managing and cooking — the sauce specifically — that is driving the large amount of business she has drummed up, she said.
The eatery’s building is no bigger than a regular home kitchen and is located a few steps from the Terrace Motel, which Voong also manages.
Voong came to Dinosaur in 2009. She previously lived in Craig for about three years and helped manage the Craig Motel.
Voong said she’s familiar with the Chinese food business.
After being forced out of Vietnam, her family settled in the United Kingdom and she opened what she called a fish and chips Chinese takeaway.
“If you’ve been to England, you’ve heard of it,” she said. “Almost all of the Chinese (restaurants) have that.”
She owned the restaurant, which was located in Croydon, just south of London, for 10 years before moving to the United States in 1998.
She and her husband at the time opened a chain of Chinese restaurants in Colorado, but after their divorce, she said she needed to take a break from the food industry.
“I had been working like over 15 years on restaurants and I was like, ‘I kind of want to give up,’” she said.
After moving to Dinosaur, Voong saw an opportunity among the other handful of restaurants in town.
“Here, all the guests that check into the motel always ask where is there to eat?” she said.
So, she set up shop, but wasn’t expecting anywhere near the results she’s had.
“You know what, even for summertime, it is kind of busy here in the motel,” she said. “So I said, ‘OK, I’ll just make a couple hundred dollars a day extra.
“We’re in shock, you know. It’s been pretty good.”
Even at 10 a.m. on a recent Thursday, Voong’s eatery was alive.
Her two cooks, Mai Zhuo and Jonny Sy, were busy preparing several large meals placed for the lunch hour.
Chinese food, she said, is “always popular.”
“People think I am (gutsy) to open in Dinosaur,” she said. “Everybody was telling me, ‘You’re opening a restaurant in Dinosaur? Chinese?’ I said, ‘It’s no restaurant, it is a fast food thing.’”
Most entrepreneurs would only set up shop in a town with 3,000 or more people, she said.
“A population of 300, who would open?” said Voong, referring to the town’s size. “Nobody.”
But, 25 to 40 customers per day from nearby towns like Rangely, and those in Utah like Jensen and Vernal, visit the restaurant, she said.
Dinosaur Mayor L.D. Smith said he is a big fan of Voong’s food and entrepreneurial spirit. The eatery, he said, is refreshing to the town’s residents.
“This is great for us, we don’t have anything like that around here,” he said. “You can get a hamburger in Dinosaur, but that’s about it.”
Smith said there are only a few other restaurants in town, all of which are struggling to put customers in chairs.
The decline in the oil and gas industry and the decreasing number of tourists headed to Dinosaur National Monument have been hard on the town’s economy.
“That is just what we are faced with,” he said. “It’s nothing to cry about. You just try and work toward the future. That’s all you can do.”
That’s all the more reason why Smith is excited by any new development or business in the area.
Everything helps, he said, to “start getting some of the things our city needs.”
“I tell you what, I admire those folks what they did there,” Smith said of Voong and the Chinese eatery. “I don’t think they knew how it was going to turn out, but it has been successful and they have just done well.
“I pray they make it.”
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