Lao-Lao Food Truck Pop-Up at Heirloom Brewshop
219 S. West St., Raleigh
Nov. 13, 5–10 p.m. (or until sellout)
Raleigh is having a Lao food moment.
It started with Bida Manda, which opened downtown in 2012. Next year, Bida Manda’s owners, Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha, will open another Lao restaurant, Luang Prabang, in The Dillon in the Warehouse District. The Dillon also houses the Lao-inflected Heirloom Brewshop, which was named to Bon Appétit’s “50 Best New Restaurants in America” list this year.
And this week, Heirloom will host a pop-up event for Lao-Lao Food Truck, which launched on October 14.
“It’s this awesome Lao food movement that we see across the country, where Lao people are embracing their culture first,” says Anousone Kettisack, Lao-Lao’s proprietor and a Bida Manda manager.
She’s speaking for herself, as a first-generation American, but also for her parents, Phouthone Kettisack and Tanh Keovilay-Kettisack, who are the truck’s inspiration and cooks. Together, the Kettisacks want to bring Lao culture—and its unabashedly funky, spicy cuisine—to the Triangle.
Phouthone and Tanh know firsthand the power of food to bring people together. They met over pho as teenagers. In 1980, in the aftermath of the Laotian Civil War, they left a refugee camp in Thailand for the U.S. They resettled in Raleigh with their infant daughter and welcomed a second daughter in 1982.
They found comfort in sharing dishes from their homeland with the Lao community, and over the next decade, Phouthone supported his growing family by working in Chinese restaurants. In 1989, Anousone was born, and her parents bought a house in North Raleigh, where she grew up and they still live.
After graduating with a degree in communications from East Carolina University in 2012, Anousone returned to Raleigh. Through the Lao community, she learned of a forthcoming Lao restaurant and began work as a host at Bida Manda in 2012 and a manager in 2015, a position she still holds.
For Anousone Kettisack, working at Bida Manda has affirmed her identity.
“You see people excited about Lao food and your culture. You gain so much pride in it,” she says. “For so long, you’re almost having to choose: ‘Should I be proud and be Lao or stay behind the scenes and adapt to American culture?’ Seeing that people can accept us for who we are and what we believe in—I can still be myself and be an American.”
At first, Kettisack’s parents questioned her decision to work in restaurants. Eventually, though, they saw how much joy it brought her and threw their weight behind her efforts (the food truck, in fact, was Phouthone’s idea). Now, it’s a family business.
“I went to Laos with my mom in May 2018, and it just reaffirmed to me how we do service the way we do [at Bida Manda]. Lao people are just like that,” Kettisack says. “It didn’t matter if we were eating street food or at a restaurant—it was the same type of calming, accommodating hospitality.”
This ethos makes the food truck’s name especially fitting.
“When you say something is ‘Lao Lao,’ it means true Lao or authentic,” Kettisack says.
The Lao-Lao Food Truck menu includes ingredients from Tanh’s lush home garden, which calls to mind Laos’s verdant landscape. There are cucumbers, long beans, and chilies, which are an elemental part of Lao cuisine. (Tanh has a saying that translates to “if it’s not spicy, it’s not good.”)
Some of the ingredients are featured in the truck’s mix-and-match “thum”-style salad plate. Thum means “smash and mix,” so your choice of base—say, green papaya, cucumber, or long beans—gets pounded in a mortar (khok) and pestle (saak) with a fermented fish sauce that’s dubbed “Lao Lao funky sauce,” then topped with pork belly, beef jerky, or chicken and served with sticky rice and pork rinds.
“The idea behind the menu is to have people interact with Lao food in a way they haven’t before,” Kettisack says. She’s referring to this interactive approach to ordering, but she also encourages diners to eat the Lao way: Pinch a mound of sticky rice between your fingertips, squish it a little to mold the grains together, and then use it to scoop up a bite, perhaps first raking it through a spicy sauce.
Kettisack’s sauce of choice is jeow som, which is made sour with lime juice and bolstered with minced garlic, fish sauce, Thai chilies, and cilantro. Lao-Lao has plans to add a weekly menu special, such as khao piak sen, a breakfast soup of handmade rice noodles cooked in chicken broth. Diners can choose a topping, such as cubes of boiled blood cake (made with pig’s blood), which has a tofu-like texture.
“We’re taking how Lao people use hospitality on the road and showing people that warmth in a really quick way. A lot of people are yearning for that,” Kettisack says. “You get that feeling of warmth and comfort, even if the food isn’t something you’re familiar with.”
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