A Portland, OR Vietnamese Restaurant Closed Because a Neighbor Complained About the Smell

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A Fremont Vietnamese restaurant has closed its doors due to a neighbor’s complaints about the restaurant’s smell. Pho Gabo, which operates three locations in the Portland area, has closed its Fremont and Northeast 73rd location indefinitely due to “the city’s and the neighborhood’s complaints about the smell of the food that we grill and the foods that we serve customers,” according to a sign posted to the restaurant’s door.

Willamette Week reports that the restaurant has been hit with complaints since September 2022, five years after the restaurant opened. A presumed neighbor has been filing complaints with the city about “odors” from the restaurant around lunch and dinner hours. Identified simply as “COM” in public documents, the neighbor alleged that the restaurant was violating zoning code which prohibits “continuous, frequent, or repetitive odors” that could impact residential neighbors. Willamette Week reports that city inspectors have visited the restaurant a dozen times over the last year and a half, reporting smells “like a wok dish,” as an inspector noted after an October site visit. City planner Justin Lindley told Willamette Week that “any detectable odor” is a violation, if an inspector notices it.

Organizations like the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association have called on the city to change its citation standards regarding odors in response to Pho Gabo’s closure. The Bureau of Development Services did not respond to Eater Portland’s request for comment.

Owner Eddie Dong told the alt-weekly that he invested in deep-cleans of the exhaust system and started grilling meats for the restaurant at the other locations, but the complaints continued. Facing unpaid fines related to the zoning code violations, Dong closed the restaurant on February 3. Dong’s landlord, Scott Everist, lives near the restaurant, and told Willamette Week that the restaurateur was a good tenant, noting the trend of Vietnamese businesses shuttering in his neighborhood. It’s possible Everist is referring, in part, to Pho An Sandy, which closed nearby in mid-2023.

Portland’s national — or even international — reputation is tied to its food and beverage industry. We are known for our restaurants, particularly our Southeast Asian restaurants. The idea that a neighbor could essentially pester a business owner out of his location using city officials and fines sets a horrific precedent, one that does not bode well for Portland’s restaurants. The fact that zoning violations can be determined based on the subjectivity of smell, which can be influenced by racial or xenophobic bias, opens up countless potential inequities: Who gets to determine what kind of odor is offensive? Would this neighbor complain about the smells from a bakery or a pizzeria — both located within a few blocks of Pho Gabo — in the same way?

When I was in college, I lived behind a row of restaurants: A pho shop, a Taiwanese restaurant, and an Italian place. I woke up to the smell of fragrant anise pods and cinnamon and coriander and ginger as the morning’s stock came to a simmer; I came home to the smell of lemongrass and fish sauce sizzling on a grill as pork skewers developed zebra stripes of char. It was a privilege. Even if I wasn’t in the mood for Vietnamese food, this proximity had no meaningful impact on my life, nor would it matter if a cooking smell did penetrate my walls. Why would anyone’s scent preferences be more important than a person’s livelihood?

Learning how to coexist with your neighbors, even when their life leaks into your personal space, is a fundamental part of living in a community. In the Willamette Week piece, Dong does not note any time this anonymous neighbor came to speak to him directly; it’s unclear if this alleged neighbor attempted to reduce the impact of the smell at home before filing complaints. In a period of time where Portland restaurants are struggling to stay afloat, investing in an air purifier or some candles seems like a far more reasonable starting point than invoking city zoning code. And if the city is as proud of its restaurants as it says, it should probably invest more time and energy in relief programs — and less on smell inspectors.

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