Featured photo: Steven Phongsa poses with a freshly made beef bowl and banh mi inside his food truck in Greensboro, N.C. on June 2, 2022. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Steven Phongsa’s dream began at home, when he was six years old.

“I got started with food by helping my parents in the kitchen, preparing and cutting up vegetables,” Phongsa recounts. His family is Vietnamese and Laotian and, as he explains, the oldest child is expected to learn how to cook and provide care for their younger siblings. 

Now, more than two decades later, Phongsa owns Steven’s Banh Mi food truck, which since its opening on Jan. 31 has been serving banh mi sandwiches, rice bowls and appetizers like egg rolls, dumplings and wings across the Triad.

What started as a cultural expectation of learning to cook became a bedrock for Phongsa spurring a fascination with food. It also became a source of employment.

“I started working at a Chinese restaurant as a kitchen helper when I was a teenager,” Phongsa says. The Chinese restaurant was located in the food court of Greenboro’s Four Seasons Town Centre mall.

Steven Phongsa assembles a banh mi sandwich inside his food truck in Greensboro, N.C. on June 2, 2022. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Phongsa quickly rose through the ranks by becoming line cook, then head chef and, eventually,  manager for the restaurant at just 22 years old. The restaurant was eventually sold, but it was a springboard to other Asian cuisines like Thai, hibachi and sushi.

“Working at those restaurants taught me a lot about food and culture and how to cater to us Americans,” Phongsa says.

As Phongsa speaks, an indisputable joy radiates. His relationship with his food isn’t just for work, it’s part of his identity and lifestyle. As a teenager, he would often prepare food for his friends’ football games; his specialty was egg rolls.

“A lot of my friends would say, ‘Get a restaurant,’ and I would say, ‘One day, one day,’” Phongsa recalls.

The food truck was a perfect fit, he says.

After years of saving, Phongsa says he was contacted by a friend in October about a food truck for sale. The truck was originally made for another customer but didn’t meet their needs. Phongsa purchased it on the spot and went from a restaurant manager to food truck owner.

A tofu banh mi from Steven’s Banh Mi in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

“It means a lot to my family,” Phongsa says, flashing a gleeful smile. “It fits my work-life balance. Being the oldest, I’m still watching over my parents and taking care of them.” 

When I first visited Steven’s Banh Mi food truck in March, I posted a Reel video on Instagram. His siblings shared the video widely, their support, love and pride for their brother and his business so evident. On a personal level, it spoke to me: For many of us from communities of color, our successes are also the successes of our families. 

“To see my brother accomplish his dream of opening his food establishment is everything,” says Judy Sisouvong, Phong’s younger sister. “I’ve watched my brother work in the restaurant industry for 20-plus years. Seeing him make his dream a reality and becoming his own boss just makes me so proud.”

Eager food seekers with a taste for banh mi sandwiches can usually find Steven’s Banh Mi food truck near Guilford College, parked at the Citgo gas station at the intersection of West Friendly Avenue and Dolley Madison Road. Wrapped in clear, ocean blue with a warm yellow menu, the truck is hard to miss. 

Steven Phongsa, right, hands food to Luis Garay from his food truck in Greensboro, N.C. on June 2, 2022. (photo by Juliet Coen)

For my second visit, I ordered the pork dumplings, pork banh mi and a pork rice bowl. 

“What is special about the sautéed pork or sautéed chicken [is] I learned how to cook it from my parents,” Phongsa shares. “My family taught me how to marinate it, how to cut it and how to keep the meat tender”

As I eat the pork banh mi and marvel at how the rice in the rice bowl is still warm from a 15-minute drive, I realize I am eating food that is a part of family history.

“I think everyone’s life goal should be to find what will fulfill them,” says Danny Sisouvong, Phongsa’s younger brother. “This means a lot to our family as well since we all want to see him flourish and be happy in what he does in life.” 

A fully assembled beef bowl from Steven’s Banh Mi in Greensboro, N.C. (photo by Juliet Coen)

Though the dream of owning a food truck is realized, Phongsa looks to the future. His fiancé is currently in Laos, and is another source of motivation.

“My goal is to bring my fiancé from Laos to the USA,” Phongsa says. “[I hope] we can grow our menu, purchase a bigger food truck and have more events we can do together.”

Follow Steven’s Banh Mi on Instagram at @stevensbanhmi and on Facebook.

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