The moment you enter Thip Khao, you are greeted with the overpowering smell of sugar, soy sauce, Thai basil, fish sauce and lime. My face immediately splits into a grin — if my childhood in Singapore could be condensed into a fragrant blend, it would be something like this. Struggling to contain my excitement — I am trying to write some objective commentary on their food, after all — I am led to a cozy little nook by the window.
Before studying the menu, I have a quick glance around Thip Khao. A clean, spacious restaurant complete with a bar, Thip Khao looks like any contemporary American restaurant. Upon closer inspection, however, the bamboo baskets of rice on every table — whose Laotian name the restaurant’s title pays homage to — and a small memorial of the founder’s mother suggest a different story.
Born in Laos, Chef Seng Luangrath became a young war refugee when she fled the unrest in Laos during the Vietnam War. After entering a refugee camp in Thailand, Luangrath learned to cook as a means to sustain her family and camp neighbors. Cooking was a way for Luangrath to maintain ties with her Laotian heritage, memories and tastes, despite difficult times and bouts of homesickness.
Chef Bobby Pradachith, Luangrath’s son and Thip Khao co-founder, was both confused and admiring of the fact that Luangrath’s appreciation for cooking followed her to the United States. Although Bobby Pradachith struggled to balance his Laotian heritage with that of his American identity, he decided to support his mother and her ambitions when she decided to open Thip Khao in 2014. A pioneer in bringing Lao cuisine to the forefront of the DMV culinary scene by creating first Lao restaurant in D.C., both the award-winning Thip Khao and its founders have found much success in educating the public on Lao cuisine, culture and the family’s inspiring history.
After combing through the menu, I finally settle on tam muk houng — an unripe papaya salad with fermented shellfish, chili, tomato, eggplant lime, puffed rice and padaek, a type of thick Laotian fish sauce — to start. Next, I enjoy laab e’kae — meat salad made of minced alligator, green apple, banana blossom, lemongrass, galangal, rau ram and cilantro tossed with lime juice and fish sauce — and piing, which is grilled chicken thigh. To wash it all down, I drink Thai iced tea. While I order the tea out of habit, I don’t realize how necessary it will be until the entrees arrive. The appetizer, a small assembly of cucumber and pungent chili sauce, did little to faze my Korean tongue, so when the mains arrive I dig in with little hesitation, expecting the mellow, gradual spiciness that most Asian-American restaurants present.
The heat became stingingly real with my second bite of the laab. Within minutes, I’m reaching for my tea and gulping it down, praying that the milk in it might help with the burning. While the laab e’kae is absolutely delicious — the alligator tastes almost like chicken — the galangal and lemongrass add a delicious crunch, and the lime juice blends the diverse flavors of the dish — I find my face becoming warm from the spice. However, I keep reaching for the addicting laab, while my left hand remains clutching the Thai milk tea for comfort.
By the time the chicken piing arrives, I had blown my nose three times, coughed into my napkin more times than I could count and had asked for another refill on my Thai tea. Hurriedly biting into the piing, the sweet sauce and the tender chicken thigh meat melts away on my tongue and brings much-needed relief from the relentless spice attack. I soon chew away at the rest of my food, reaching a comfortable medium by alternating between the three dishes.
As I look around Thip Khao before I leave, I can’t help but feel giddy at how packed the restaurant is at only 6 p.m. As someone who calls Southeast Asia home, it excites me that so many people in D.C. flock to Thip Khao and are willing to try foods outside of their regular repertoire. Thip Khao is changing the status quo — and doing it with remarkable success. This restaurant is not only a story of cultural rediscovery and pride, like so many immigrant-run restaurants, but it is also a pioneer in representing a cuisine that The Washington Post referred to as “rare here as a hero on ‘House of Cards.’” It is my humble hope that through increased representation of under-represented Asian cuisines such as Hmong, Indonesian, Western-Chinese, Bengali and more, we can find greater appreciation for the diversity and potential that is the D.C. culinary community.
Ye Bin Won is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service. After Hours appears in print every other Friday.