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It’s the eve of her D.C. restaurant debut, and chef Seng Luangrath has to leave the country. When we meet at her new Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao, in Columbia Heights last Thursday, she’s just been on the phone with a travel agent. Her father is ill, and she’s booking a flight to Laos to see him.
“If I don’t go now, once we open I won’t be able to go,” Luangrath says. “It might be the last time I will see him.”
And so District residents will have to wait a bit longer for Thip Khao, an offshoot of Falls Church’s Bangkok Golden, whose name means “sticky rice serving basket.” It will be D.C.’s first Laotian restaurant and one of relatively few beloved immigrant-run suburban establishments to make the jump into the city. The restaurant has already hosted some invite-only dinners over the past couple weeks, but it won’t open to the public until early December when Luangrath returns from Laos. It’s been nearly two decades since she last visited her native country, and more than 30 years since she first escaped it, sending her on a circuitous journey where cooking was the constant.
Luangrath and her family fled Vientiane, the capital of Laos, in 1981, when she was 12 years old. The country suffered from political unrest in the wake of the Vietnam War, and her father had been put in a prison camp because of his involvement with the anti-Communist Royal army, which had ties to the U.S. “My grandmother has 12 children, so she sent all of her children out of the country,” Luangrath says. “Once the country changed and the Communists took over, she said, ‘Go, go.’”
Luangrath, her mom, two brothers, and uncle left in secret with only the clothes on their backs, plus some money and jewelry. They took at a bus to an area near the border with Thailand, arriving at night. With the help of guides, they were taken under cover of darkness to the banks of the Mekong River, where a boat awaited them. “It was quite a scary moment, because we’d never been to a place like that before,” Luangrath recalls. In the final stretch, they disembarked from the boat and walked chest-deep through the water to reach the bank on the other side. “Once we get to the Thailand side, we had to climb up the cliff. We heard gunshots behind us,” Luangrath says. “But we made it.”
Luangrath’s family ended up in a refugee camp in Nakhon Phanom in northeast Thailand. They spent the next two years there, living among thousands of other refugees in bamboo-made buildings. With no school and not much to do, Luangrath learned to cook. The camp was filled with people from all corners of Laos, and Luangrath picked up on recipes and flavors that came from all over the country—something that’s still reflected in her cooking today. “I know right away,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is it. This is what I want to do.’”
After months of not knowing where they would ultimately end up, Luangrath’s aunt sponsored the family to come to the U.S. in 1983. At the time, Luangrath didn’t know what had happened to her father, or if he was even alive. But after they arrived in Berkeley, Calif., they found out that he’d been released from the prison camp. He ultimately stayed in Laos and remarried.
Luangrath started high school in the U.S., even though she didn’t know any English when she first arrived. When she got home, she would cook. Her mom worked as a housekeeper and came home exhausted, so feeding the family fell to Luangrath. She watched cooking shows with Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, and Chinese chef Martin Yan for inspiration.
Luangrath moved to Virginia in 1989 when she married her husband, Boun Khammanivanh. Her mom and stepfather arranged the union. “I saw him first time, second time, and the third time we got married,” says Luangrath, although the two had a long bicoastal engagement during which they also talked on the phone. Still, she says, “I was very happy.”
In her new home, Luangrath continued to cook for her husband’s family. Her husband started a flooring company and later a maintenance company, and Luangrath helped manage the office and sales over the years. They had two sons. But the work never made her happy. In 2008, her husband suggested she take some time off and find her passion.
Luangrath spent her days Googling recipes, cooking all kinds of food, and baking pastries. “Once I finished a meal for my family for dinner then I’d be up again until maybe 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. If I don’t get a recipe right, I have to get it right,” she says.
She also catered for her husband’s clients and business partners, who pushed her to turn her hobby into a profession. “I just hear many people saying, ‘Seng, you’re in the wrong business…Your food is great. You’ve got to do something about it,” she says. With money saved up, Luangrath and her husband bought Bangkok Golden, an existing Thai restaurant in a Falls Church strip mall, and relaunched it in 2010.
Initially, Luangrath only served a Thai menu. But back in the kitchen, she prepared Laotian dishes, which servers would promote as specials. “People would come and try it and next thing they bring their friends. It just went word of mouth,” she says.
Several months after the opening, Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema showed up. “I didn’t know who he was. It was like two white guys walked in,” Luangrath says. Her server asked if they wanted the buffet. “He goes, ‘No, I’m not here for the buffet. I’m here for Lao food,’” she says. “We were like, ‘What?’ It was like the first two people, non-Lao, that walked in. My sister-in-law ran to the kitchen she was so happy. She was like, ‘Auntie Seng, you’re going to have to hear this! There’s two white guys in the front…and they want Lao food! And he wants exactly how you eat it!”
The restaurant earned praise and 2.5 stars in Sietsema’s November 2010 review, and Luangrath immediately created a Laotian menu to be given to diners alongside the Thai one. Today, it’s the more popular option, earning attention from media throughout the region and attracting diners who normally complain about leaving D.C. for a meal. With the subsequent openings of trendy restaurants like Little Serow and Doi Moi, there’s been a growing appetite for pungent, spicy southeast Asian flavors.
Meanwhile, Luangrath’s fans were clamoring for her to open up a location in the District. “A lot of people don’t like to cross the river and go to Virginia. They said, ‘You’ve got to go to D.C.’ So I heard that for two years,” she says.
Many city dwellers lament the fact that the area’s best ethnic eating—whether it’s Vietnamese, Chinese, or Korean—remains in the suburbs. Surely that Rockville dumpling joint or Annandale Korean barbecue spot would kill if they opened another location on 14th Street NW? But the immigrant restaurateurs who typically run such places face plenty of obstacles venturing into the District—or simply aren’t interested in leaving their communities.
“Coming to D.C., it’s quite challenging with the law, with the lease, with all the process,” Luangrath says. One of her regulars, who lives in D.C. and works in real estate development, helped her figure out where to search for restaurant space and looked over her lease. Thip Khao also has a silent investor, but it’s primarily funded by Luangrath and her husband.
Expensive real estate is one major hindrance to opening a restaurant in the District, especially when it comes to the more desirable high-density neighborhoods. And mom-and-pop operators with businesses in the suburbs tend to live nearby, so the commute, traffic, and parking in D.C. are drawbacks for some, Luangrath says. There’s also the uncertainty of whether the food will have enough mainstream appeal. Even Luangrath still seems slightly surprised that so many Americans like her food and actually request it spicy.
But at a time when no buzzword is more important than “authenticity,” diners now appreciate flavors that aren’t dumbed down. Bangkok natives Nat Ongsangkoon and Dia Khanthongthip, for instance, owned an Americanized Thai restaurant called Thai Place in Foggy Bottom for many years, serving generic pad Thai and spring rolls. But they’ve since closed it and opened Soi 38, which serves the hot curries and punchy noodle dishes that they actually cook at home and enjoy in their home country.
Unfortunately for restaurateurs, diners often associate “authentic ethnic food” with “cheap,” and upscaling can be a risky proposition. When Silver Spring Burmese restaurant Mandalay expanded into Shaw last year, the only option was a $70 tasting menu—not exactly the affordable kind of food its fans were accustomed to. The restaurant shortly after launched an a la carte lounge menu, but few people realized it, and the place was nearly empty on the multiple occasions I visited. It closed less than a year later when the owner had to return to Burma to take care of family businesses there.
Fortunately, Thip Khao, taking over the space of Thai Tanic II, will not stray far from Bangkok Golden—except that it will serve an exclusively Laotian menu. Among the terms you’ll want to get to know: orm (curry stew with Thai eggplant and dill), laab (a lime, herb, and fish sauce–heavy minced meat dish), and naem khao (crispy rice salad with sausage for which Luangrath is particularly known). The space, which was blessed by Buddhist monks, is much more polished than the lived-in Falls Church dining room, with orange chairs, sleek wood tables, and a front-and-center bar serving cocktails. Luangrath hired bar consultant Jack Caminos to come up with drinks that highlight various southeast Asian ingredients like lemongrass, basil, and lychee.
But Luangrath has a greater mission than expanding her business. She wants to use her location in the nation’s capital to create a “Lao Food Movement” that will educate people about her cuisine and country.
“There’s a lot of generations where people are afraid to say where they’re from,” Luangrath says. Instead of telling people they’re from Laos, she explains, kids will say they’re from Thailand because Americans don’t know what or where Laos is.
“I always say, ‘You’re from Laos. Just tell people that…’ And then explain to people where is Laos and just be proud of it,” she says. “Having a movement is having people acknowledge it, know where Laos is. The cuisine is one of the things that will bring the knowledge.”
Thip Khao, 3462 14th St. NW; thipkhao.com
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery