When the doors reopen for dinner at 5 p.m. weekdays, the Vietnamese restaurant on the north end of Spenard Road soon floods with people. The parking lot fills to overflowing; the tables are packed with families and couples and groups of friends and coworkers. It's busy at lunch, too.
But every weekend and for two hours every weekday afternoon, the restaurant closes its front doors. Cooks and servers return to their full-time jobs as mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles and grandparents. At Ray's Place, family comes first — it's been that way from the beginning.
"The Vietnamese culture is really family oriented, so it's kind of a family venture," said Curtis Yim, sitting in the restaurant dining room one quiet Thursday afternoon.
When he first launched the eatery with his wife, Joanne, their four children were young. As the family grew, the restaurant business did, too. Two locations, four generations, 24 years and thousands of satisfied customers later, Ray's Place is an Anchorage institution.
How it all started
It all started when a military man from Shishmaref fell in love with a woman from Vietnam. Linda Seetomona agreed to follow Ray back to Alaska if he brought her children, too, so that's exactly what he did. When the family arrived in Anchorage in 1975, Joanne Yim was just 13.
She adjusted to the cold, grew up and took a job at the airline catering company where she met her own future husband. If you ask Curtis Yim, it was destiny.
Together, they dreamed about opening their own restaurant one day.
"I just learned from cooking at home and cooking for a big family," said Joanne Yim. "I always tried new things, and they all liked it."
Her Vietnamese cooking fed an increasingly international crowd — her Alaska Native stepfather, her Hawaiian husband of Chinese descent, her Mexican brother-in-law. Family members brought friends and coworkers.
Around the time the Yim's fourth son was born, Joanne left her job at Alaska Regional Hospital to care for her children.
"My mom said, 'Why don't you open a Vietnamese Restaurant? Because you like to cook Vietnamese food,'" she recalled.
Their first establishment, called Saigon Restaurant, operated out of a single unit in a strip mall on Tudor Road. Their infant son slept in a stroller in the kitchen while Joanne cooked. The customers started rolling in — family friends from the hospital, the school district bus barn and the municipal offices nearby. Soon, the restaurant was expanding into a second unit; then a third.
At the time, there were few Vietnamese restaurants in Anchorage, so the Yims printed menus in English and did their best to introduce Americans to a new kind of cuisine. They made pho with chicken and beef, showing the uninitiated how to crack crisp bean sprouts and fragrant basil over steaming bowls of clear broth. They served heaping plates of spicy chicken and fried rice, adapting old family recipes to suit Alaskan's taste buds.
It worked. The business grew.
The recipe for success
"The hard part — and I think we've gotten over that hump — is just working together as a family," said Curtis Yim. "That's why we felt it was important to close on the weekends."
Soon, the restaurant outgrew its Tudor Road location and moved to the building on Spenard. It was renamed Ray's Place in honor of Joanne's stepfather. Through word of mouth and glowing reviews, customers multiplied.
Years passed. The children who were young when the restaurant opened grew up and took jobs there. Eventually they had children of their own. These days, it's Curtis and Joanne Yim's grandchildren who spread their homework across the tables before the restaurant reopens for dinner every night.
Or you might run into Linda Seetomona, the matriarch who brought the family from Vietnam; or Mimi Tinajero, Joanne Yim's sister, who often helps at the front of the restaurant; or any of the other brothers and sisters who've kept the restaurant running over the years.
"To me, it's not work, it's just being with family," Tinajero said.
Most of the family members work full-time jobs outside the restaurant, but they still find the time to visit Ray's Place regularly, or help with the kids, or keep the family business going in a thousand other subtle but necessary ways.
If you ask Joanne Yim, that's the key.
"You cannot do everything without family help," she said. "You cannot be everywhere at once. Family is important."
After 24 years in business, the Ray's Place family extends well beyond the ties of blood and marriage.
"I think what makes our restaurant special is we treat people like family, you know?" Joanne Yim said.
People who come to eat stay to share conversations. They grow attached to favorite meals: the cold noodle salads or the tamarind tofu with mixed vegetables or the savory curries or the banh mi, famous citywide.
Photos of old customers hang at the front of the restaurant. Sometimes regulars move away, then come back to visit, stopping by Ray's with the smell of the airplane still clinging to their clothes.
When one old-timer passed away, Joanne prepared his favorite foods for his memorial, sobbing in the kitchen as she cooked.
It's like Cheers, Tinajero said: Around here, everyone knows your name — or at least your face, or your favorite dish. And that's the way the family likes it.