That’s not to say he didn’t try cooking foods representative of his heritage much earlier. In 2011, Syhabout opened its first Lao street food restaurant, Hawker Fare, in nearby downtown Oakland and in 2015, the second location in the Mission District. While the Oakland restaurant closed in 2017, the San Francisco one still exists. As Syhabout recounts, however, his iteration today is quite different from the initial concept. The menu included grilled prawn paste dips and “lots of bitter flavors” like jungle curries. Diners came to ask for pad thai and got upset that it was not available. “I was getting killed on Yelp, reading stuff like, ‘Oh, that shrimp paste, genuine or not, it smells like dirty socks in the locker.’ It hit my heart.”
In response, Syhabout has made its menu more accessible to the general public, removing sour and fermented elements sourced and inspired by Laos and northern Thailand, and putting in more commonly served Thai dishes. “I thought, ‘At this rate, I have to keep the business running. It’s not worth putting my staff to the test,” says Syhabout. Although it wasn’t the food he really wanted to cook, he didn’t feel free to cook whatever he wanted. “But I’m proud to have tried my luck.”
It makes sense that Thai cuisine, more ubiquitous in the United States, is generally used as a point of reference to describe Lao cuisine. Not only do the two countries share borders, but they have long had disputes over them; in fact, while many consider papaya salad to be Thai, it originated in Isaan, a region that was originally Laos. The food of landlocked Laos, however, incorporates more lime and fermented fish pastes, but less curries, than that of Thailand. Depending on their position within the Diaspora, Asian American chefs like Syhabout who want to cook food from their home country are sometimes tasked with not only presenting an entire cuisine to the public, but also making it accessible to palates. Westerners.
There’s something to be said for the gastronomic space, where set menus – and the impossibility of making substitutions – convey to future diners that they are committed to an evening with the chef and their team’s vision. Syhabout still sees a future for his Lao cuisine in which the catering format would require customer acceptance before entering the restaurant. “I still have my dream; I really want to do a Lao restaurant like I do at Commis, where it’s fixed price, family style. You do not have the choice. It is what it is and you pay up front,” he says. A set menu, created by a widely acclaimed chef might be what it takes to move the needle in terms of accepting a cuisine that is otherwise ignored or watered down. It attracts a restaurant audience that is “all in” and ready to go wherever the chef takes them.
Again, a set expectation can be its own burden. Angie Mar, whose aunt was the late Ruby Chow, a Seattle restaurateur and politician, is a descendant of an American Chinese restaurant empire but started cooking French cuisine in her own career. “Since the age of 8, I [have been] a very old French man trapped in this body,” she says. When she took over the management of The Beatrice Inn, a French meat-focused restaurant, she had a story of a storied chop house to uphold. By the time she shut it down during the pandemic, she had been both victorious and a victim of her own success. “People will still come because it’s a New York institution, but the downside is that you’re tied to its heritage and you can’t really stray that far from it. [it]. People are very attached to the idea of what they think something should be,” says Mar.