Since January 2016, 10 Laotian restaurants, food trucks and farmers market stalls have opened in Dallas-Fort Worth, with an 11th coming soon. The newcomers join a small group of older, more traditional eateries like Nalinh Market. Now, unexpectedly, a nationwide Lao food movement finds many of its leaders in North Texas, a region so rich in sticky rice, laap and papaya salad that it has become the biggest, most exciting Laotian food scene in North America.
There are good reasons that Laotian food remained hidden from American diners for so long. Laos is a relatively small country — it has just 7 million residents — and its biggest neighbors are inescapable influences in Texas dining: Vietnam, Thailand, China. Those cuisines all show their influences in the food of Laos, too.
The Laotian-American population in metro Dallas sounds small: just 8,000 people. But relative to their home country’s size, that’s a major community, the equivalent of traveling to a city in Asia and discovering that it is home to 32,000 Texans. According to the Pew Research Center, only Sacramento and Minneapolis have more Laotian-Americans than the Dallas-Fort Worth area. A website called Hmong Studies has an even higher tally, ranking the region second nationwide.
For many years, it would have been hard to scan local restaurant listings and detect the second-largest Laotian community in the United States. The causes for that absence are rooted both in Lao culture, where sit-down meals are almost always eaten at home rather than in restaurants, and in American ignorance of Lao cooking. Indeed, many Americans do not even know where Laos is. Its famous neighbors are a different story.
“Unlike Thailand and Vietnam, its neighbors, Laos is rarely represented in American popular culture and presented on the news,” wrote Michelin-starred Laotian-American chef James Syhabout and food writer John Birdsall in their 2018 cookbook, Hawker Fare.
Laos is still subject to one-party communist rule; American warplanes bombed the country in a secret campaign during the Vietnam War. Across the border in Thailand, much of the Isan region’s population is ethnically Lao, and as with Laos, Isan suffers from high poverty. In the past, Thai people have stereotyped Laotians for their relative lack of development.
There are other roadblocks. Laotian food has much in common with Thai and Vietnamese, which makes sense given the countries’ shared borders, but Lao palates tend to favor spicier, sourer, funkier flavors — in other words, flavors scarier to older generations of American diners.
“Lao food is Thai food’s funkier cousin,” says Cliff Douangdara, one of six cousins behind the Dallas-area pop-up series and beef jerky vendor Saap Lao Kitchen. “We use lot of fermented fish sauce that gives a deeper level of umami savoriness.”
As they moved to the United States, a country where they were more or less unknown, Laotian immigrants like Syhabout’s mother worked in Thai restaurants to pay the bills.
“Like a quarter of Thai restaurants are owned by Lao chefs,” Douangdara explains. “For the longest time, Lao restaurant owners weren’t really confident enough in their own food to serve it to the American public and disguised their recipes as Thai dishes. The last three or four years, Lao chefs are finally coming out of their shells.”
The pop-up series Saap Lao Kitchen is also about introducing the general public to a cuisine it still doesn’t much know. (Sapp Sapp, Zaap Kitchen and Saap are unrelated and have different owners. They get their names from the Lao word for “delicious.”)
Saap began with a New Year’s resolution at a family event, when cousins Cliff and Elson Douangdara; Frick, Loan and Frank Chanthorn; and Sandy Sichanh agreed to go into business together.
“In Christmas of 2015, all of us sat around talking about how there’s not a lot of Laotian food represented in the DFW area. There’s mom-and-pop shops but not a lot of places inviting people to try the food for the first time. We thought we could be that medium,” Cliff Douangdara says.
Frick Chanthorn had experience cooking at The Blind Butcher, but the rest of the family was new to professional food service.
“My brother and all of the cousins grew up in our moms’ kitchens learning the recipes from them,” Cliff Douangdara says. “My mom didn’t have daughters, so most of the food that they made in the kitchen they passed down to us. Most of us are self-taught home cooks. We learned these recipes from our moms and our grandmas.”
Saap operates pop-up events across Dallas, Fort Worth and their suburbs, usually at breweries such as Texas Ale Project, Community and Martin House. But its main business is something the family didn’t expect: beef jerky. The jerky line, which includes regular, “just right” spicy and “too hot for Lao mom” spicy meats, is so successful that making a new batch from scratch each week has become Saap’s primary focus.
Even at pop-up events, jerky plays a starring role. When Saap set up shop at Irving’s Lao New Year festival in early May, the family offered free samples of beef jerky while a grillmaster basted chicken wings and fat Lao sausages over charcoal. Taste the results and it will be clear why the jerky is a hit. The just right spicy version has a first taste of a sweet, sticky glaze that could be applied to barbecued pork ribs. Sesame oil works its flavor into the corner like a shy person in a group photo. Then, suddenly, the heat arrives like a lightning bolt, chile peppers stabbing and lingering long after the meat is chewed and gone.
On the back of the bag is a hand-stamped message: “With every purchase, you support our family’s mission of sharing Laotian food and culture.”
The young entrepreneurs behind Dallas’ Lao food boom don’t seem to understand the national importance of their labors. Dallas and Fort Worth have become, without question, the best cities in America in which to sample Laotian cuisine. Like Irving and Arlington, Sacramento has a lot of mom-and-pop kitchens, many attached to markets or groceries. San Francisco, New York, Washington and Raleigh offer high-end interpretations at restaurants such as Syhabout’s Hawker Fare or Luangrath’s Thip Khao, which have brought the idea of a Lao food movement national recognition.
But those cities have nothing on the scale and youth of Dallas’ movement. Almost every chef in this story is young, and all intend to conquer the city one food truck, farmers market stall or brewery pop-up at a time. North Texas has at least 12 explicitly Laotian restaurants and at least three more Lao businesses that operate as pop-ups.
Article written by: Brian Reinhart of Dallas Observer