Thai Lan Xang’s opening in Johnston this past July added to the growing list of Lao or Lao-centric restaurants in Rhode Island. Lao dishes typically share Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and French influences, but the herbaceous cuisine, which can be both spicy and bitter, with layers of aromatics, has an identity all its own.
“Not a lot of people know about Lao culture in general,” said Britny Sarankham, who works at the restaurant that her father, Boungning Sarankham, co-owns.
Boungning Sarankham can typically be found in the kitchen cooking traditional Lao dishes including papaya salad, called tum maak hoong, made with shredded green papaya, fresh chili, tomato, lime, fish sauce, and peanuts. The colorful dish is a flavor extravaganza on the palate, with notes ranging from sweet and salty to sour and spicy.
Britny Savankham says about half of Thai Lan Xang’s customer base is from the Lao community, including family and friends who come to support them. The other half may not distinguish the nuances between Lao-specific dishes and other Southeast Asian cuisine, including countries that share Laos’s border — China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand — and Savankham sees that as an opportunity. “In a way, we try to teach our customers about Lao food so they know more about Lao culture.”
“I love seeing Lao dishes come to America, because a lot of times, you see it very westernized, and it becomes ‘Thai’ or it becomes ‘Asian fusion,’ and it’s not. It’s Laos,” said Ting Barnard, the owner of a creative studio in Providence and an adviser for Papitto Opportunity Connection, a private, Rhode Island-based nonprofit supporting educational and entrepreneurial initiatives to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“A typical Laotian lunch or Laotian breakfast is very savory, so it’s not as sweet,” Barnard explained. An example of a ‘similar-but-different’ dish she says, is pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup. “But they use anise, which is a very specific spice. We don’t really use that, we use a chicken broth and lemongrass, and the flavor profile is a little different.”
James Viengkone Phommasith, president of The Laotian Association of Rhode Island, says most of Rhode Island’s Laotian community resides in Woonsocket and Providence. According to the 2020 census, 3,395 Rhode Islanders identify as Laotian in any combination, with 81 percent identifying solely as Laotian, one of the largest Asian American ethnic groups in Rhode Island according to AAPI Data. The latest census data show that the number of Rhode Islanders identifying as Asian American grew by nearly 28 percent over the past decade — rising from 2.9 percent of the population to 3.6 percent.
Phommasith, Barnard’s father, describes the Lao population here as very close-knit, and strengthened by its Buddhist faith community, adding that many like him found their way to Rhode Island as refugees in the years after a Communist government came to power in Laos in 1975.
Traditional foods, which he describes as “hearty, flavorful, and bold,” are usually served family-style and shared among two to three generations at the table. “Laotian food encourages families to take time to eat together. A typical meal includes 4 to 6 varieties of entrees and always includes jasmine or sticky rice,” said Phommasith.
Sticky rice, a staple food in Laos — the country has the highest sticky rice consumption per capita in the world — is often used to temper spicier dishes. “Sticky rice actually acts like a spoon to pick up your food,” and dab into a dish’s remaining sauce, explained Barnard.
At Champa on Providence’s East Side, larb, often referred to as the unofficial national dish of Laos, is a popular order. The a meat-based salad, usually ground chicken or beef, combines fresh herbs, roasted rice, lemongrass, onions, lime juice, scallions and diced cucumber, finishing with a spicy kick. “If you go to any party in Laos, you will receive that,” said owner Peter Viphakonecq. “My family back home will do it with liver or kidney, but over here, we don’t use that.”
Viphakone opened the Hope Street restaurant about a year ago, but he’s not new to the business. He opened Nam Khong restaurant in Westerly in 2016, and it’s now run by his sister in law.
Viphakone says it’s not uncommon for Champa to have a long line of eager diners out the door, many who are students from nearby universities. Some are Laotian, part-Laotian or Laotian American, seeking the comfort of familiar flavors.
Others come for popular Southeast Asian dishes, such as pad thai. But at Champa, the more widely known Thai-associated dishes, like pho and drunken noodles, are done Laotian style. While the flavor profiles share similarities, the same dishes prepared in the Thai and Laotian styles have distinct characteristics, Viphakone said. “The sauce is different because in Thailand, most of the dishes, they put in some sugar,” he said.
“I try to explain to the customers when they order,” that they might taste a little different, Viphakone said. “If they say, ‘I don’t want that,’ [Viphakone tells them] I opened this restaurant to share our culture. If you change that, it’s not authentic.”
When Barnard visited Laos with her husband, Ian, a number of years ago, the 30-hour trip left them jetlagged, “like zombies,” she said. But the couple rebounded, Barnard recalled, after enjoying fragrant, steaming bowls of khao piak. “It’s like chicken noodle soup, but a very cultural Lao version of it. It’s sort of medicinal,” she said. The soup is customized to taste, with bean sprouts, basil, green onions, cilantro, herbs, spices and other ingredients added to broth swimming with udon-like chewy noodles.
Khao piak is one of the Lao dishes Barnard orders at Pho Zap Zap at 389 Smith St. in Providence, as well as lard na, a stir-fried dish of wide rice noodles drenched in a savory gravy made from yellow bean sauce, fish sauce, and soy sauce. For Barnard, the aromas are evocative. “It’s hard to describe, but when you smell it, it’s like transporting you back [to Laos],” said Barnard, who came to the United States as an infant with her family as refugees.
For Rhode Island’s Laotian community, traditional cuisine is a taste of home and an avenue to celebrate their culture, with one another and their neighbors. “Laotian people are compassionate, generous and kind-hearted,” said Viphakone. “We share our stories and our personalities through our dishes.”