As Michelin-star chef James Syhabout explains in his book “Hawker Fare,” Lao food has a complicated history — much like the country of Laos, a palm-tree shaped country bordered by Thailand and Vietnam, and a battleground during the Vietnam war.
Chef Thip Athakhanh, 40, who opened Snackboxe Bistro in Doraville in 2018, was born in Laos and came to the U.S. when she was just a year old.
“I had no memory of Laos. I was born in a refugee camp,” she says, sitting at a table at Snackboxe Bistro in Duluth, the newest restaurant she’s opened with her husband, Vanh Sengaphone.
“I grew up here,” Athakhanh declares, proudly claiming her Atlanta roots. “We landed in Kansas. We had church sponsors that took us in. After that, somehow we made it down to Louisiana. We stayed there for a year, and then we came to Georgia.”
Now known as a talented Lao chef, Athakhanh worked in sourcing and planning for a solar manufacturing company before making the jump to the kitchen.
“I didn’t want to be a cook,” she says. “Four years ago, I didn’t even want to open a restaurant. It was my husband who wanted to own a restaurant because he thought Lao food was underrepresented. Every time I cooked dinner at home, he said, ‘I don’t understand why we can’t have this in a restaurant.’
“He didn’t push me to do it, because he’s my husband, and he’s biased. He actually believed that my food was really good. And he said we had to bring it to Atlanta to educate people about Lao food. So he’s the reason I became a chef.”
Defining Lao food
Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are better known and more plentiful around Atlanta, while Lao food is often thought of as sticky rice and papaya salad. But as Syhabout points out, umami is the key, with flavors that range from salty, bitter and herbaceous to fragrant and heavily spiced.
“Surprisingly, though Atlanta is a foodie place, they still don’t always know what Lao food is,” Athakhanh says. “We have customers who walk in and say, ‘Do you have Thai-style papaya salad?’ No we don’t. But if you go to a Thai restaurant, I guarantee you 100% the menu would say Lao-style papaya salad.”
As for what really defines the art of Lao food, Athakhanh thinks it’s complex, time-consuming soups, along with dishes that feature a wide variety of proteins.
“If you think about Laos, you immediately think of kow piek, which is our chicken noodle soup,” she says. “Our noodles are handmade, and it’s a different broth. We also have khao poon, which is a red curry noodle soup, and our Lao sausage and Lao meat dishes. That’s what people associate Lao food with. It’s definitely heavier.”
Chances are, if you have eaten Thai food in Atlanta, you’ve tasted the culinary influence of Laos. There’s long been a historic, semi-symbiotic relationship between Lao and Thai restaurants, according to Athakhanh.
“A lot of the Thai restaurants here will have an authentic menu, which is northern Thai food, and is very, very similar to Lao food,” she says. “They have their northern Thai sausage, their beef jerky, their papaya salad. Those all are essentially Lao food.”
Lao cooks are commonly found in the kitchens of Thai restaurants in Atlanta, says Athakhanh.
“They’re very talented in the kitchen. We love to cook. Growing up, a lot of the Thai restaurants that you’d see in Atlanta in the ‘80s and ‘90s had a Lao owner. But they just couldn’t tap into Lao food, yet.”
COVID and the move to Duluth
In 2020, Snackboxe expanded to Ph’east, the Asian food hall at The Battery at Truist Park. But after the pandemic hit, the restaurant closed.
“It was a very good, diverse food hall, but COVID came, the rent was very high, and we were already paying rent for six months during the buildout.”
To recoup their losses, they opened the Duluth location.
“My parents believed in us, and they said they wanted to do this restaurant. So this is essentially their restaurant.”
The benefit of working in Duluth is the presence of a Lao population there that gives Athakhanh a chance to be more creative.
“I’m experimenting with more authentic dishes because the crowd is definitely more open to it here,” she says. “You see dishes that are not at Doraville, like the bamboo soup that is bitter and savory. And we have our chicken liver and our chicken feet here, and the coconut curry.”
Another addition to the story is Snackboxe Snacks, packaged Lao treats and products to-go, “made proudly in the USA.”
“I wanted to create something that had a long shelf life that you could enjoy at home,” Athakhanh says. “We have Lao-style beef jerky, Crispy Crunch seaweed chips and our pandan brownies. Those took off immediately. It’s kind of like a cake and a brownie in one bite. Pandan leaf is like vanilla, with a flavor and aroma that’s a little different.”
Grandmas and the Lao community
As it turns out, it takes a village to supply Snackboxe with all the ingredients Athakhanh needs. So she’s cultivated a group of “grandmas” who make things like the noodles for her soups, and the rice powder for her laap, a meat-based salad. She calls them “OGs” because “they have the skills.”
“Lao ingredients are very unique and special. Some of the things I use I don’t make. I rely on the community to support me,” she says. “The sauce for my jeow bong wings is homemade. You can not buy it in the store. You take roasted chiles, and you pound it with galangal and all these spices. It takes a long time. And once you’re good at it, you’re the only person they go to for it.”
Sadly, the jeow bong sauce grandma died earlier this year. “I joked with her,” Athakhanh recalls. “‘Does anyone know your recipe?’ She goes, ‘No. But I will teach you one day when you have time.’ That one day never came. Grandma Liam passed away. That was my heartbreak of last year.”
In desperation, Athakhanh tried to make the sauce herself. But it didn’t taste right, so she went to the auntie who makes her rice noodles and gave her a sample of Grandma Liam’s sauce. Somehow she duplicated it exactly, and now she makes both the noodles and the jeow bong for Snackboxe.
“That’s how special Lao cooking is. We hold on to these recipes. And if someone shares it with you, it’s a connection,” Athakhanh says. “They love you. So when I give a recipe to a friend or a family member, it’s because I love them. And when I’m sharing my cooking with the community, it’s because I really, truly love Atlanta. I love the people here. They’re the reason we’re still open after COVID.”
Once upon a time, Athakhanh had dreams of turning Snackboxe Bistro into a franchise. But no more. Two restaurants are enough.
“I think this is it for me,” she says. “No more expansion. No franchise. No nothing. Once it becomes too much, I feel like my heart’s not in it. With Lao food, you have to cook from the heart.”
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