First-time restaurateurs Vanh Sengaphone and Thip Athakhanh, the Laotian-American husband-and-wife team behind Snackboxe, call the bright, often spicy dishes they serve Lao street food. And they introduce the menu with the motto: “It’s more than just sticky rice.”
On the menu, you’ll find the likes of pork-filled spring rolls, crispy coconut rice salad with fermented pork or tofu served as lettuce wraps, and “mainstays” such as beef or chicken larb, Lao sausage and flash-fried beef jerky. There’s also a weekly special, such as bamboo soup with assorted mushrooms.
The couple’s neat storefront space near Super H Mart in the Peachtree Pavilion shopping center has the contemporary fast-casual design of a franchise in the making.
A series of delicate watercolor and paper paintings commissioned from Atlanta artist Christina Kwan were inspired by Lao textiles, flowers and plants. And on the back wall, there’s a quote from Anthony Bourdain: “Laos is the kind of place that can easily capture your heart and not let you go.”
In 2016, during a honeymoon trip to Laos, Sengaphone and Athakhanh decided it was time to put their respective operations and cooking skills to work to conceive a concept based on their native cuisine.
Last week, Athakhanh sat down at a table at Snackboxe to talk about the restaurant and Lao food.
“I don’t really consider myself a chef,” Athakhanh said. “I consider myself a home cook who started off cooking for my husband and family and friends. This was a huge step opening a restaurant. It’s overwhelming. It’s rewarding. It’s everything.
“It’s only been one month since we opened, but we’re getting a lot of positive feedback from the community. They’re so open to Lao food, which really isn’t very well known. Mostly people know Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. There are people who have never tried Lao food, and now we’re seeing them two or three times a week.”
Lao cooking, Athakhanh explained, is similar to northern Thai in many ways, but there are distinct differences, too.
“One big difference is that we use a lot of fermented ingredients,” she said. “We have fermented fish sauce, fermented pork, fermented noodles and many other things that bring in different flavors that are salty and sour.
“For the most part, our menu is authentic. But I did a little spin on our Saku, which is tapioca pearl dumplings. The traditional recipe is pork filling. But because we don’t have any vegan dishes, I made a soy filling. It’s made by hand, and steamed to order, and there’s been such a high demand that I can only offer it on the weekend.”
Growing up, one of Athakhanh’s favorite childhood snacks was Khao Chee, sticky rice omelet cakes, which are pan-fried and topped with seasoned egg wash and red pepper flakes.
“Laos is a very poor country compared to Thailand and Vietnam,” she said. “So we have to work with what we have, which is a lot of plants, a lot of vegetables, a lot of herbs, and sticky rice. But this simple dish is so flavorful to eat by itself or with other dishes.
“Generally Lao dishes are very labor-intensive. Everything is made by hand. You can’t mass-produce it or make it in big batches. It has to be made to order. We make all of our noodles in-house daily, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. We make our beef jerky in-house, and we make almost everything else in-house.”
Most of all, Athakhanh said, Snackboxe has a mission that’s cultural as well as culinary.
“We just want to bring Laos to Atlanta,” she said. “There aren’t many Laotian restaurants here. And this is not a mom-and-pop place. We wanted to connect with all age groups and have the young crowd and the old crowd and the more adventurous crowd, too.”
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