PAST ARTICLE PUBLISHED ON July 16, 2019
The door swings open with smiling faces to greet you with a mouth watering whiff of fish sauce. As you walk through the crowd, you see people laughing and chatting away over food you grew up eating. Your eyes glance at the beautiful naga serpent painted on the walls with shrines of family and loved ones on the opposite end. You’d think it was those memories of your parents playing pai cards or those large potluck gatherings to celebrate the kids birthdays, but it is the quaint restaurant called Thip Khao nestled in the charming Columbia Heights in D.C.
Since the influx of Southeast Asian refugees starting in 1975, many Lao entrepreneurs started opening restaurants around the U.S. Their education and careers in Laos no longer mattered in the U.S. Due to the dramatic change of environment, Lao people had to find a career they felt confident in building. They had to rebuild their life from scratch. A wave of Thai restaurants across the nation started popping up. To the general public visiting these restaurants, they thought it was a regular Thai restaurant. The menu was filled with curries, pad Thai, and stir fry veggies. It was the tastebuds of the Southeast Asian folk that understood the true complexities of these restaurants.
Hidden away in the back were the gems. You’d find Lao chefs eating Lao food. They would add the funky and pungent padaek unfiltered fish sauce to the food they ate on break. They tossed extra bird eye chili peppers on all their food to really bring out the dishes flavors. They stirred a pot of the secret menu that had jungle stews like gaeng nor mai. They grabbed the jar of bile to add the touch of bitterness to the laab. It was these changes that many were scared to embrace and show the world. At the time, Lao people were recent refugees and wanted to adjust to the new environment by clinging to what the majority deemed as normal. They wanted to protect themselves from being seen as the outsider. It was survival.
Over 40 years have passed since the plight of Lao refugees, and the community is feeling bold just like its flavors. One of the pioneers to embrace all that is Lao food is Chef Seng. You’ll usually find her laughing and having a good time over food as she empowers the next generation of Lao food lovers. Her mission is to level up Lao food just like other cuisines and increase the value of her community and cuisine. She is the owner of Thip Khao and also three other Lao restaurants in the DC and surrounding area. Chef Seng was one of the Lao owners to a Thai restaurant in Virginia called Bangkok Golden. With success of her first restaurant, she made a bold move and took the risk of opening a Lao centered restaurant called Thip Khao. It is the crown jewel to highlight all that is delicious with Lao food.
Her move of changing the name Bangkok Golden to Padaek sparked empowerment and love for Lao food. The Lao community felt it from across the nation. With her successful career in bringing Lao food to the forefront of the culinary world, it also solidified the Lao Food Movement. Many Lao restaurant owners slowly started adding Lao items to their menu. The store signs were no longer just Thai, but it said Thai and Lao. It is this moment that many new restaurant owners are taking ownership of their identity and feeling proud to just label their restaurant as Lao. With this change, the public and mainstream media is noticing the pungent, aggressive, and spicy flavors of Lao food.
With Thip Khao, the public is able to order the bold flavors of Laos. The restaurant has a section called “jungle” food highlighting the amazing Lao home cooking that is typically not seen at restaurants. Dishes like moo som soured pork, thummakhoong phet phet extra spicy pungent papaya salad, orm lam dill mushroom stew, kua mee sweet stir fry noodles, and pun paa whole fish wrap. These dishes will plunge you straight into the middle of a Lao family’s living room.
If you decide to take a Lao food tour of all of Chef Seng’s restaurants, you’ll notice the twist and turns she takes you through to each one. Padaek restaurant reminds me of visiting Southern Laos. You’ll find many familiar Lao cuisines and also their buffet special for lunch. With just an hour metro ride outside of DC, it is located in a long strip mall in Virginia. You can ask for some laab with bile to make sure you get the true bitter tastes with your warm khao niew sticky rice. If you eat there, you may even run into Uncle Boun who manages the restaurant!
In the same city as Padaek, you can head to the Tyson Galleria to find the Lao noodle concept called Sen Khao. It’s in a beautiful upscale mall with a gorgeous environment to slurp each strand of noodle at. The one dish that stands out is the Lao pho som which is the Lao take on pho but extra sour and sweet! It’s a gigantic bowl of noodles that is well made with fine ingredients including endless condiments at your disposal. Don’t forget about the deep fried jeaw bong wings; it packs a spicy sweet flare for any wing lover. Lastly, make sure to grab lots of the deep fried chili peppers.
The newest addition to the restaurants is Hanumanh named after the monkey king. I recommend this place near the end of your tour as it will revitalize how Lao food is reimagined. It’s a hip environment specially painted with the monkey king all around the walls. It is dripping in thip khao bamboo sticky rice baskets on the ceiling. I describe this place as the creative playground where visitors can experience Chef Seng and her son Chef Bobby’s food imagination. Not only does their Hanumanh drink come in a cute monkey cup but it incorporates delicious flavors of Laos in a drink like condensed milk. You’ll find plenty of modernized Lao American bar food like plant based sakoo yatsai tapioca dumplings, Chef Bobby’s creation of cheunh het pouk blooming mushroom, salat hua pii banana blossom salad, Hanumanh song kuang vermicelli noodles over fermented fish pork sauce, and gaeng phet crab curry.
What all these restaurants have in common is the essence of Chef Seng, Chef Bobby, and the rest of her team’s passion and love for spreading the Lao food movement. It’s a sight to experience all these restaurants in a metropolitan city like DC as they continue to make waves across America. I know and trust that we will see dozens of Lao restaurants created from this movement. You may even find Chef Seng traveling to your city as she continues to empower Lao food entrepreneurs. Don’t underestimate the power of the funk!