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How D.C. learned to love minced alligator

Seng Luangrath cooks a family recipe at her Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao, in Columbia Heights. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

When Seng Luangrath was 12 and living in a refugee camp in Thailand, the trauma of exile was still fresh. She had grown up in neighboring Laos in a multigenerational household with a grandmother who taught her to cook sticky rice and other traditional recipes over an open fire. But the country had been embroiled in civil war, and in 1981, Luangrath, her mother, an uncle and some of her siblings fled in tiny boats as gunshots cracked nearby.

Luangrath missed her grandmother, who had stayed behind. But for an adolescent who liked cooking, the camp provided a rich education. Pots, pans and stoves were distributed to the refugees, who came from parts of Laos that Luangrath had never been to. “People from the north, people from the south, people from the mountains, people of Chinese descent,” she recalled. Some used woks. Some ate cicadas. “They cooked food I never grew up eating.” She soaked it all in.

Now, nearly four decades later, Luangrath sat in Thip Khao, the Laotian restaurant she owns in Columbia Heights, and poured her life story into a microphone. The interview was part of a project on Asian chefs in the District, funded by the DC Oral History Collaborative, which trains people to record personal stories of the city. The project’s creator, Crystal HyunJung Rie, is immersing herself in the lives of five local chefs, including two mother-son teams, who have influenced — and been influenced by — the city’s recent food explosion.

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Rie, who grew up in South Korea, was working on a master’s degree in Asian Studies at Georgetown University when she was struck by how entrenched Korean and other Asian food was in American mainstream culture. She wondered how it had gotten to be that way.

“The Asian population in D.C. is 4 or 5 percent, but you see so many Asian restaurants in D.C.,” she said. “I wanted people in D.C. to get to know the people who are preparing the food and the long stories of their struggles and their adjustment.”

Rie came from somewhat of a cooking family — her grandparents had a bakery in Seoul — and as a recent immigrant, she can relate to some of the experiences her subjects describe. Some started out working in restaurants unrelated to their native culture. Some experimented with combining Asian and other cuisines. Some opened restaurants at low moments in their lives, crossing their fingers that their cooking and the city’s increasingly sophisticated palate would click.

In interviews, chefs talked with Rie about the District’s transformation from a bastion of steakhouse power lunches to a mecca for young foodies. The plethora of residents who travel abroad (or just have adventurous palates), combined with relatively low rents, make it a cultural and financial sweet spot for inventive restaurateurs.

“I feel like places like New York, that used to be the number one food city in America, or maybe the world, has really fallen off because the rents are too expensive,” said Edward Lee, culinary director of Succotash, a Penn Quarter restaurant that ­fuses the food of his family’s native Korea with the Southern cuisine of Kentucky, where he lived for many years. “Then you look at places like middle America — the rent is cheap, but you also don’t have the clientele that appreciates artistic food, so it’s too much in the other direction. I think D.C. right now is going through a time where you . . . have clientele here that really wants and is really sort of waking up to and respecting the art and craft of food.”

Lee is a relatively recent arrival to the city, but the other chefs Rie interviewed have lived here for decades. Yesoon Lee, 72 (no relation to Edward), emigrated from Korea in 1970 and raised her children in Northern Virginia. Trained as a music teacher, she never planned to be a chef, but after her husband died in 1996, she needed to support her children. So she ran a deli in Old Town Alexandria and then a Chinese franchise restaurant at Reagan National Airport.

It took her U.S.-born son Danny to convince her that Americans might be ready for Korean food. During her student days in Illinois in the 1970s, a Korean friend had made rice cakes, and the Americans had not liked it. “So I said, ‘You know, no white would appreciate rice cake.’ And then Danny said, ‘Mom, I’m American. I love it.’ ” In 2006, she opened Mandu, one of the city’s first Korean restaurants, near Dupont Circle, and later expanded to a second location.

Her clients often surprise her, like when she gets an order for yukgaejang, a beef soup that is already spicy, and the diner requests extra heat. “I check the number of the table, and it’s not a Korean table,” she told Rie. “I get amazed a lot of time. It’s becoming a very cosmopolitan area, this D.C.”

Danny Lee, now 37, followed his mother into the business, as a co-owner and chef at Mandu and later opening ChiKo, a ­Chinese-Korean restaurant, with a friend and fellow chef.

The recordings Rie is making will be available for the public to view and use as part of the D.C. Public Library’s special collection. The goal is to deepen understanding of the city’s people and institutions, said Maggie Lemere, consulting oral historian and director of community engagement for the collaborative, a partnership project of Humanities DC, the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Public Library, which has funded 18 oral history projects in the past two years.

“It’s one thing to go to a restaurant and have an amazing culinary experience, but it’s another thing to be invited in and have a deep appreciation for the cultures, communities and histories behind that,” Lemere said.

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Sitting in her restaurant with one mic attached to her clothing and another on the table, Luangrath described landing as a teenager in Berkeley, Calif., where she discovered cheeseburgers and Wonder Bread. Her parents worked several jobs, so she cooked Laotian meals for the family, finding substitutes like carrots for hard-to-get items like papaya, and buying fermented fish sauce from Lao friends.

Back then, few of her schoolmates had heard of Laos. “We were kind of like shy about it,” she told Rie. “Sometimes we’d say, ‘We are Thai,’ because then people didn’t ask us so many questions.” At 20, she married a Laotian friend of the family (she cooked her own wedding meal) and moved to Northern Virginia, where he lived. She helped with her husband’s flooring business, but over the years, as she cooked for Lao friends and family, they started suggesting that she open a restaurant.

The idea was daunting, financially and psychologically. But in 2009, she heard about a Thai restaurant in Seven Corners that was closing, and the owner of the property was willing to cut her a deal on rent. The spot didn’t seem too big to handle. “I told my husband I wasn’t scared,” she said. “I trusted my food so much.”

Worried that the public wouldn’t know what Laos was, Luangrath kept the business as a Thai restaurant, Bangkok Golden, but added a few Laotian dishes, a sort of secret Lao side menu. At some point, she realized that a growing number of customers were trekking in from the District for the Lao offerings. Then, food critics discovered the Lao menu, and suddenly there were lines out the door. Eventually, she gave the restaurant a Lao name, Padaek.

Thip Khao, which opened in 2014, was about Laotian cuisine from the start, and in coming weeks, Luangrath and her son, also a restaurateur, plan to open another Lao restaurant in Shaw.

“It means a lot,” she told Rie. “We are so shy about our identity, ashamed of what we eat because it’s too spicy, too stinky, too strange for other people to embrace it.” Even family members had warned her to stick to Thai. So when customers embraced the Lao menu, she said, “I was like, ‘I can be proud of it now, instead of hiding under another culture.’ ”

Luangrath also credited the worldliness of local residents. “A lot of diplomats, a lot of people who work for government, a lot of people who travel. People here are very open for what we serve. . . . They’re willing to try anything.”

That includes minced alligator, rice-cured sour pork belly and ant eggs, a delicacy in Laos that she describes as “like a Lao caviar.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that her son Bobby Pradachith, 25, chose to follow her career path. At Annandale High School, he participated in the school’s culinary arts program; he then studied at the Culinary Arts Institute in New York, and now he is a chef and co-owner at Thip Khao.

Apart from local residents’ open-mindedness about food, Rie’s subjects also touted the tight community of Asian chefs in the District. Many get together socially to cook for and support one another — a phenomenon they say is unique to the District, perhaps because of its relatively small geographical area.

“We have a lot of friends who are chefs in other cities, and they’ll visit here, and they’ll cook with us during one of those events, and they’re like, ‘This is awesome! It doesn’t happen in our city,’ ” Danny Lee told Rie. “If someone needs a recipe, we will send it to them. You know, someone’s short-staffed, we will go and help them out. . . . We’re really proud that our city’s like that.”

This story is one in an occasional series about the DC Oral History Collaborative, which trains people to record personal stories of the city.