We're LIVE Snackboxe Bistro, with co-owner Thip Athakhanh learning about Lao cuisine and checking out a cooking demonstration. Tune in to see them cook up two of their more popular meals.
These are small differences in technique, almost invisible by the time the plate reached my table, but they made all the difference. This shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. One of the main reasons Lao food is less known in the United States is a matter of small differences. Laos is a country neighbored by Thailand and Vietnam, two countries that have long, thriving culinary reputations in the U.S. As it happens, Thai food happens to have a lot in common with Lao food, though the differences are quite distinct.
Thai food’s relative popularity in the States has created a certain conundrum for potential Lao restaurateurs. I’ve never seen it summed up better than in James Syhabout’s cookbook “Hawker Fare”: “Do you take a chance on Americans looking up Lao food in the Yellow Pages and finding you? Or do you call it Thai? Cook those sugary curries and orange phat Thais, and maybe mix in a few Lao dishes, tame versions of laap and papaya salad, and say it’s all Thai?”
It is to the credit of Vanh Sengaphone and Thip Athakhanh, the married owners of Snackboxe Bistro, that they have taken a risk and opened an unabashed and excellent Lao restaurant here on the perimeter of Atlanta. They’ve built a reliably friendly staff that I’ve watched, over the course of several recent meals, walk many newcomers through the distinctions of the cuisine. In fact, I’ve been one of them.
Snackboxe Bistro steams whitefish with dill and lemongrass inside of banana leaves for mok pha. CONTRIBUTED BY WYATT WILLIAMS
Though I like to think of myself as a longtime admirer of Lao food, the menu at Snackboxe Bistro includes several dishes new to me. That includes mok pha, whitefish steamed with herbs inside a banana leaf. Just as I was beginning to open up the banana leaves, Athakhanh dropped by to say, “You know, you really should be eating that with sticky rice.” She disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a little foil packet full of it. She was right. Sticky rice is the perfect vehicle for absorbing the succulent marinade, redolent of dill and lemongrass, that accompanies the fish. Perhaps I was spotted as a critic, but I’ve seen the staff here regularly pay this kind of friendly attention to detail with customers, over and beyond the expectations of counter service.
Whether you’re familiar or not, the menu offers plenty of pleasure. The papaya salad is funky and rich with fish sauce without being over-the-top salty. Lao sausage is packed with lemongrass and porky flavor, though I wish the casing had more snap. Don’t be fooled by the dish called shrimp ceviche on the menu; the plate that arrives will be silky, funky and spicy as anything from Laos.
A bowl of khao poon at Snackboxe Bistro is rich and laden with red curry. CONTRIBUTED BY WYATT WILLIAMS
A bowl of khao poon, a porky rice noodle soup made rich with red curry, might be the single-most filling item on the menu.
If you’re with friends, maybe it is best to just order a handful of dishes (almost everything on the menu is $8 or less), including the sticky, fried beef jerky, the addictive, acidic chicken larb made with homemade rice powder, papaya salad, sticky rice, and the trio of jeow (sauces) for dipping. The jeow bong, in particular, brings a deep, caramelized chile-packed punch. Afterward, you should ask for a cup of nam van, an iced, sweetened coconut milk concoction loaded with little jellies, fruit and corn. It’ll cool off any lingering burn.
In recent weeks, I’ve been excited to see the kitchen continue to experiment, offering weekly specials like crispy, shell-on shrimp and fried lemongrass quail. I look forward to watching this restaurant’s menu grow, though I think I’ll always be having a plate of nam khao.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-6 p.m. Sundays. 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 770-417-8082, snackboxebistro.com.
Recommended dishes: Nam khao, papaya salad, khao poon, chicken larb, nam van.