The jeow mak len explodes on the tongue in a scattering of spicy-sweet. Tiger’s eye fish sauce melds with mortar-and-pestled bits of cilantro, chili, tomato, shallot, and garlic– a conspiracy of flavors bordering on fatal.
A generous daub of Soul Lao’s jeow can make almost anything taste good. And Eric Phothisanh and Sabrina Boualaphanh, 28-year-old co-owners of the food truck phenom, know it.
But the origin story of Soul Lao – and its Lao and proud provisions – is not an uncomplicated one. Initially, Phothisanh and Boualaphanh had planned to master Thai cuisine. Phothisanh’s father even ran a Thai restaurant in Washington state at the time.
But after refining their craft in the kitchens of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the two made their way to their ancestral homeland of Laos. There, they discovered a new mission; to give Lao food a much-needed platform in their home state of Minnesota.
“Sabrina’s great aunt, Dao asked us, ‘Why don’t you do Lao food? It’ll open your eyes to yourself and the world and create more ripples in the water.’” Phothisanh said. “And we just went from there. Our focus shifted to making Lao food a staple.”
“We had been told that Thai food would do well, but Lao food can’t go that far,” Boualaphanh added. “Our food isn’t Instagram-ready. We use chicken feet and blood cubes. Our food is messy, it’s funky, it’s spicy. We want to represent the underrepresented, and have people give this experience a chance.”
Even today, the limelight seems to elude Lao food. There are complex and interconnected reasons for this.
Thai and Lao cuisines bear marked similarities to one another because Laos and northeastern Thailand were once part of the same kingdom, so they share culinary influences and sensibilities. This has led to some well-meaning confusion, and foods with Lao roots and distinct variants – think papaya salad and larb – remain better known in their Thai avatars.
Moreover, Lao food has not benefited from the kind of clever marketing that catapulted Thai food to popularity. For its many mild and sweet curries, Thai fare presents a palatable option even for diners daunted by the “ethnic” and “exotic.”
So, while it’s true that most Americans hesitate when it comes to paying top dollar for it, Thai food has, at the very least, a venerable spot in the global hierarchy of taste. The same cannot quite be said for Lao food … yet.
As the diasporas mature into their forties, Lao- and Hmong-American activists and cultural producers have been writing the “Secret War” into history, and creating a new canon of art as intense and revelatory as it is playful.
Soul Lao, guided by the vision of Phothisanh and Boualaphanh and the foundation laid by #LaoFoodMovement, is just as much about breaking the silence and embracing a long invisible and stigmatized identity. Their medium of choice happens to be sticky rice.
“I don’t want her to forget our roots,” said Boulaphanh, gesturing towards the couple’s two-year-old daughter and taste-testing extraordinaire, Willow.
“A lot of Lao folks don’t want to talk about our history. This is a way for us to hold on to a piece of our roots,” Phothisanh chimed in. “We make the food we were raised on, what our grandparents made for us. This is soul food.”
Soul Lao’s food, while comforting and relaxed, is also incredibly labor-intensive to prepare. The pair source their ingredients locally and make everything from scratch. At Blackstack Brewery, where Soul Lao has found a spiritual connection of sorts, herb-forward Lao sausage, crispy pork-flecked rice and chicken wings keep winning, but they’re more than your standard boozy bites.
“I make the oyster wings for my grandma. We brine them, freeze them ourselves … it’s a long process. It makes me humble to know what my grandma went through to feed us,” said Phothisanh.
Paired with the bright, lime-infused Lao IPA, a Blackstack x Soul Lao collaboration, the meal is more tonic than simple treat – it is inextricably tied to community and family. And Phothisanh and Boualaphanh aren’t afraid to charge diners exactly what that experience – sharing quality and flavor with friends and family – is worth.
“Just because we’re Asian immigrants doesn’t mean our food has to be cheap” said Boualaphanh, referencing “Fresh Off The Boat” writer Eddie Huang’s “No Coupons” speech. “We charge full price because it’s worth it.”
“If we weren’t doing it,” asserted Phothisanh with a grin, “you wouldn’t be getting it.”