For Andy Sisomboune, khao piak sen is good for the soul. As a boy growing up in Elgin in the 90s and aughts, when he and his sisters took sick, his father made the Lao chicken soup infused with makrut lime leaf and galangal, finished with salt, sugar, and fish sauce, and thick with chewy rice-flour and tapioca-starch noodles. "I would just wake up in the morning from the aroma and run to the kitchen," he says. "For lots of Lao people it's their number one comfort dish. That was the one dish I wanted to base everything I did on because it's so nostalgic."
Sisomboune is a 29-year-old sous chef at Nico Osteria on the Gold Coast, but his plan is to open Chicago's first-ever skater bar/Lao restaurant and serve the food he ate growing up.
That includes khao piak sen, which sold out within four hours last Tuesday at Ludlow Liquors during the third installment of his pop-up series Sao Song (the Lao words for "22"—the age he started cooking). The fried chicken wings with "tasty paste"—Sisomboune's name for jeow bong, a thick, intensely fragrant pestle-pounded dip of chile, galangal, and lime leaf—were 86'd too, as well as the tofu laab and the sticky, sweet pork-stuffed tapioca dumplings sakoo yat sai.
There hasn't been a dedicated Lao restaurant in Chicago since Edgewater's Sabai Dee closed eight years ago. Before that there was nothing—though if you're a fan of any of the city's restaurants offering dishes from Thailand's northeastern Isan region, you can get some idea of what it's like given the influence of the majority ethnic Lao living there—more than in Laos itself.
Such as it is, the suburbs are where it's at: in Burbank at Spicy Thai Lao, or in Elgin, home to the restaurant White Pearl and a handful of Lao groceries. Most of the state's Lao settled in Rockford and the aforementioned far-western suburb in the aftermath of the Vietnam war. That's where Sisomboune's mother landed, and separately, his father, after a year in a Thai refugee camp and then college in France. They split up when he was just a toddler, and though his dad held down multiple jobs, he still managed to cook for the kids—and then some. Sisomboune fondly recalls Lao-style omelets, scrambled with fish and soy sauces, garlic, shallot, and tomato; tum mak tang, a spicy pounded cucumber analogue to papaya salad; and the sakoo yat sai his father brought home from the grocery. (His sister called them "gooey gooey golf balls," a name that appeared on last week's menu.) Everything—even snacks—was eaten with sticky rice.
"My dad liked to have parties at the house," he says. "So there was a lot of food around, and a lot of friends and family and gambling." Special parties invariably meant a number of live ducks were procured and butchered; the textural contrast of the meat, offal, and congealed blood, with chiles, herbs, aromatic toasted rice powder, and fish sauce came together in a laab, a vegan version of which Sisomboune approximated at Ludlow using slices of Phoenix Bean smoked five-spice tofu, diced fried tofu, mashed firm tofu, and Maggi seasoning in place of fish sauce.
Sisomboune's father tried to teach him to cook, but all he ever wanted to do was skate, and after high school he moved to San Francisco, dreaming of going pro. In the meantime he found work as a runner at the modern-Moroccan Aziza, which had recently won a Michelin star. Sisomboune says chef Mourad Lahlou hated him—"probably because I was just a young skater kid who didn't know the ways of a militant kitchen. He would just light me up all day." But while Lahlou's star was rising and he frequently left town, Sisomboune, mesmerized, spent more and more time in the kitchen, expediting and lending a hand when he could. "I would just watch the cooks and fell in love with it. I was just like, 'I could do that.'"
Homesick, and increasingly unable to afford to live in the Bay Area, he returned home determined to cook professionally, thinking one day he'd apply Aziza's fine-dining approach to Lao food.
It was rough finding work at first. Unlike the situation in today's oversaturated restaurant scene, in 2008 it was hard for an inexperienced cook to find work in a Chicago kitchen. But though his father had since passed away, Sisomboune's sister still lived in Elgin, and he started going to parties again, this time watching and lending a hand with the food. His mother had moved back from Florida, and he'd cook with her too.
He was still skating, though, which eventually led to a lead on a job. John Manion, a friend of Uprise Skateshop owner Uriah Ruta's, was preparing to open La Sirena Clandestina, and though the chef didn't have any positions available, he invited Sisomboune to stage there. After he'd helped prep two days before opening and worked the line during the second soft opening, Manion offered him a full-time job on the line. He stayed there for three years before moving on, with his boss's encouragement, to a succession of esteemed kitchens, among them Juno and the late Bom Bolla.
It was after Sisomboune had broken up with a long-term girlfriend that Manion encouraged him to start pursuing his dream. "Opening a brick-and-mortar space is very difficult right now, and I didn't have the money to do it," Sisomboune says. Manion told him, "the best thing you can do is start doing pop-ups. Get your name out and make a brand, and when you're ready to settle down you're not starting from nothing. You'll have a following."
He launched Sao Song on August 22 at Spilt Milk with a menu of somewhat cheffy takes on humble Lao dishes such as jeow bong (minus the traditional water buffalo skin), tum mak tang, and mak meuah—charred eggplant dip served with market vegetables—as well as the northern Thai pork sausage sai oua and a take on the steamed fish custard mok pa that featured a whole grilled fish wrapped in a banana leaf.
Sisomboune followed that up in September at La Sirena, this time joined by longtime friend and barman about town Ben Fasman (Off Color Brewing, Sportsman's Club, Estereo, Dove's Luncheonette), who developed a cocktail menu with flavor profiles that echoed the food.
For the Ludlow Liquors pop-up Fasman says he went for clean and refreshing drinks using the same ingredients as those on the menu, like a rum highball with Topo Chico, lemongrass syrup, makrut lime, and mint. "But for spicy noodles I wanted drinks you didn't really have to think about," says Fasman. That meant beer, notably the jasmine-rice-based Beerlao, served in a take on michelada or with a pineapple-ginger daiquiri shot.
The growing appeal of the Sao Song pop-ups is measurable by the increasing number of comments and likes on its Instagram page, @saosong22, which was recently given a boost by @laofoodmovement, D.C. chef Seng Luangrath's account documenting the ascendance of modern Lao dining across the country at restaurants such as her own Thip Khao and San Francisco's Hawker Fare, along with dozens of lower-profile operations across the U.S. and Canada. Sisomboune says he didn't know many Lao-Americans until they started showing up at the pop-ups.
It may not be long before they—as well as the chef's skater friends—have a more permanent place to hang out and eat the food of their youth. This summer he and Fasman were close to making a deal on a brick-and-mortar spot to settle into, but it fell through.
There are more pop-ups coming, though, and Sisomboune says he'll be featuring both some of the dishes he rolled out at Ludlow and some newer ones like the pork-noodle soup khao soi, and beef jerky (sien hang) with skewered chicken hearts and charred tomato dip (jeow mak len). The next pop-up, at La Sirena from 5 to 9 PM on Sunday, November 19, will be "slightly more upscale, no noodles." After that comes another noodle pop-up at Dove's on Sunday, December 9, from 8 PM to midnight.
In the meantime he and Fasman are keeping their eyes open for something permanent. "I want it to be a bar that sells food, and I want it be a skater bar," says Sisomboune.
"Every major city has one. New York has Max Fish, LA has the Cha Cha Lounge, San Francisco has Delirium. My whole vision is having a place that represents exactly who I am: a skateboarder who grew up with parents from Laos." v