LUANG PRABANG, Laos — Seng Luangrath had never been to this mountain-ringed Mekong River city, her home country’s top tourist attraction, and on a summertime visit she was eager to test her tongue.
The chef and owner of Washington’s only Lao food restaurant had come to help shape a top-notch kitchen at a soon-to-open botanical garden. But the bubbly, driven Luangrath had a bigger mission at heart: lifting up her country’s cuisine.
She sat at some of the city’s top tables and was impressed with the slick presentation. Then she took a bite. Luangrath found or lam, an eggplant-thickened meat stew, without enough punch and MSG flavoring everywhere.
“I was surprised they watered down the food,” Luangrath said. When she inquired of locals, they replied, “Oh, because of tourists.”
Yet Luangrath has punctured the myth of bland Western palates in Washington, where she’s building an empire. She has two established restaurants — one of them, Thip Khao in Columbia Heights, was honored last year as one of Bon Appétit magazine’s top 50 new restaurants in America — and two more in the works. She’s also working to build what she calls the Lao Food Movement, to popularize the distinctive tastes of a nation she once fled in the dark of night.
“A lot of kids are growing up in America, got married to other cultures and kind of like lost Lao culture,” Luangrath said. “It seems like the food is bringing us back. It’s reconnected [us]. People are so proud of it. . . . It’s stinky? It’s okay. It’s spicy? It’s okay. Bring it out, because nowadays, traveling people are willing to try anything new.”
Luangrath spent her early years in the capital city of Vientiane at a time of upheaval. The communist Pathet Lao took over in 1975 after a disastrous civil war that drew in the United States and North Vietnam. Like many Laotians, 12-year-old Seng and her family made a break for it in 1981.
Late one night, they took a bus to a hut outside the city, she recalled, where they met smugglers who eluded patrols to take them by boat across the Mekong into Thailand. They spent the next two years in refugee camps before the United States granted them asylum.
It was in a refugee camp in Thailand that Luangrath, with no school and her mother working, learned to cook from neighbors, using less-than-inspiring ingredients provided by the United Nations. Cabbage soup was common.
The family settled in California among relatives, and Luangrath continued her culinary education by watching as much Julia Child as she could. She moved to Alexandria after marrying Bounmy Khammanivanh, who is also Lao.
They worked together on flooring and construction businesses, but she got more satisfaction — and rave reviews — when she would cook for clients and coworkers. So Seng left the business to craft a menu, testing and retesting so much at odd hours that her husband half-jokingly suggested putting a bed in the kitchen.
With $30,000 in savings and a bit of luck, she took over Bangkok Golden Thai in Seven Corners in 2010. Though their landlocked homeland has rich flavors and delicacies of its own, most Lao chefs in the United States cook only the better-known food of Thailand.
So it’s typically only at staff meals or in home kitchens where members of the Lao diaspora grab a pinch of sticky rice — used as both starch and utensil — and dive into shared plates that lean toward the bitter, the herbal and occasional flamethrower levels of spice.
Luangrath’s path to Lao food evangelism was gradual. Her Lao dishes started as specials made at the request of regulars and insiders. Eventually, plates such as papaya salad flavored with fermented fish sauce and fried quail with lemon grass migrated to the menu.
The Lao dishes ended up outselling the Thai food and inspiring Luangrath to seek out a space in the District for a Lao-only restaurant. Thip Khao opened in December 2014 to warm reviews — including in The Post — and national buzz. So Luangrath started thinking bigger.
For a few months, she launched a noodle shop pop-up at Union Market called Khao Poon, which starting this week will take over Thip Khao on Tuesdays, when the restaurant usually closes. Luangrath has signed a lease to develop a more casual Lao restaurant in Shaw, with an opening date still to be determined.
The empire is fast becoming a dynasty. Luangrath’s son Bobby Pradachith, 23, did a stint at José Andrés’s Minibar and now runs Thip Khao’s kitchen. (Sometimes he even has to kick Mom out so she can get some rest.) Pradachith is also sketching out his own venture to serve historic Lao food from long-forgotten recipes.
“Food is the easiest way to introduce a culture,” Pradachith said, telling of classmates who did not know anything about his ancestral home. “We can really get people to understand what Laos is and really become a unique country.”
To that end, Luangrath is connecting with Lao chefs around the United States via her Lao Food Movement, to which she has dedicated parts of her website, along with Facebook and Instagram pages. Her message: They don’t have to open a typical Thai restaurant, and the unusual nature of Lao food is a selling point. Thip Khao includes a “jungle menu” with pig’s ears, fried duck heads and other rural specialties rarely found on American plates. Luangrath is working to bring in chefs to see how she makes Lao food for Washingtonians.
Laos might need its own crash course.
Rik Gadella is launching a high-end restaurant connected to the Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden, which is set to open in the next few months outside Luang Prabang. He connected with the author of a Lao food cookbook, who introduced him to Luangrath.
She balked at first, with so much on her plate, but eventually decided to make a food pilgrimage. She had visited Vientiane a couple of times since her departure but had never made it up north to misty, Buddhist-temple-packed Luang Prabang.
Gadella hired Sing Sondara, a Luangrath protege from Thip Khao, as chef, and Luangrath is acting as a consultant. The goal is to be more healthful, more inventive and more authentic than the nice restaurants in town. But getting top-quality ingredients and an efficient, crisply trained staff is always a challenge in the underdeveloped country of 7 million people and no elite food scene.
During Luangrath’s July visit to Laos, she brought along Steve Gaudio, a real estate consultant who had helped find her Washington restaurant spaces. “She wouldn’t say this, but she was looking for food that was better than hers,” Gaudio said. “And she wasn’t finding it.”
The best finds, as it turned out, were hidden away. For the noodle pop-up, Luangrath is trying to perfect khao soi, a popular soup made with tomatoes and ground pork. In a modest noodle shop in a Luang Prabang alleyway, she was smitten with a khao soi made with “very pungent, very flavorful” soybean paste.
Luangrath bought some paste to take back, in the hopes of replicating it and finding yet another original way to challenge Washington’s taste buds.
Malloy is a freelance writer based in Luang Prabang, where he relocated from inside the Beltway.