“I didn’t want to be a cook,” she says. “Four years ago, I didn’t even want to open a restaurant. It was my husband who wanted to own a restaurant because he thought Lao food was underrepresented. Every time I cooked dinner at home, he would say, “I don’t understand why we can’t eat this in a restaurant.
“He didn’t push me to do it, because he’s my husband and he’s biased. He actually believed that my food was really good. And he said we had to bring it to Atlanta to educate people about Lao food. So he’s the reason why I became a chef.
Defining Lao cuisine
Thai and Vietnamese restaurants are better known and more plentiful around Atlanta, while Lao food is often seen as sticky rice and papaya salad. But as Syhabout points out, umami is key, with flavors ranging from salty, bitter and grassy to fragrant and heavily spicy.
“Amazingly, although Atlanta is a foodie place, they still don’t know what Lao food is,” says Athakhanh. “We have customers who come in and say, ‘Do you have Thai papaya salad? No, we don’t. But if you go to a Thai restaurant, I 100% guarantee the menu would say Lao papaya salad.
As for what really defines the art of Lao cuisine, Athakhanh thinks it’s complex and time-consuming soups, as well as dishes that contain a wide variety of proteins.
“If you think of Laos, you immediately think of kow piek, which is our chicken noodle soup,” she says. “Our noodles are handmade, and it’s a different broth. We also have khao poon, which is a red curry noodle soup, and our Lao sausage and Lao meat dishes. This is what people associate Lao food with. It’s definitely heavier.
If you’ve eaten Thai food in Atlanta, chances are you’ve tasted the culinary influence of Laos. According to Athakhanh, there has long been a historical semi-symbiotic relationship between Lao and Thai restaurants.
“A lot of Thai restaurants here will have an authentic menu, which is northern Thai cuisine, and is very, very similar to Lao cuisine,” she says. “They have their Northern Thai sausage, their beef jerky, their papaya salad. These are all basically Lao food.
Lao cooks are commonly found in the kitchens of Atlanta’s Thai restaurants, says Athakhanh.
“They are very talented in the kitchen. We love to cook. Growing up, many of the Thai restaurants you would see in Atlanta in the 80s and 90s had a Lao owner. But they just couldn’t tap into Lao food yet.
COVID and the move to Duluth
In 2020, Snackboxe expanded to Ph’east, The Battery’s Asian food hall in Truist Park. But after the pandemic, the restaurant closed.
“It was a very good diverse food hall, but COVID came in, the rent was very high and we were already paying rent for six months during the construction.”
To recoup their losses, they opened the Duluth site.
“My parents believed in us and they said they wanted to do this restaurant. So it’s basically their restaurant.
The advantage of working in Duluth is the presence of a Laotian population which gives Athakhanh a chance to be more creative.
“I’m experimenting with more authentic dishes because the crowd is definitely more open here,” she says. “You see dishes that are not in Doraville, like the bamboo soup which is bitter and savory. And we have our chicken liver and our chicken feet here, and the coconut curry.
Another addition to the story is Snackboxe Snacks, Lao packaged treats and take-out products, “proudly made in the USA.”
“I wanted to create something that had a long shelf life that you could enjoy at home,” says Athakhanh. “We have Lao beef jerky, Crispy Crunch seaweed chips and our pandan brownies. These took off immediately. It’s kind of like a cake and a brownie in one bite. Pandan leaf is like vanilla, with a bit different flavor and aroma.
Grandmothers and the Lao community
Turns out it takes a village to supply Snackboxe with all the ingredients Athakhanh needs. So she’s cultivated a group of “grandmothers” who make things like noodles for her soups and rice powder for her laap, a meat-based salad. She calls them “OGs” because “they have the skills”.
“Lao ingredients are very unique and special. Some of the things I use, I don’t make. I rely on the community to support me,” she says. “The sauce for my jeow bong wings is homemade. You cannot buy it in the store. You take roasted peppers, and you pound them with galangal and all those spices. This takes lots of time. And once you’re good at it, you’re the only person they go to.
Sadly grandma jeow bong sauce passed away earlier this year. “I joked with her,” Athakhanh recalled. “Does anyone know your recipe? She goes, ‘No. But I will teach you one day when you have time. That day never came. Grandma Liam passed away. That was my heartbreak of last year.
In desperation, Athakhanh tried to make the sauce herself. But it didn’t taste good, so she went to the aunt who makes her rice noodles and gave her a sample of Grandma Liam’s sauce. Somehow she replicated it exactly, and now she makes both the noodles and the jeow bong for Snackboxe.
“That’s how special Lao cuisine is. We keep these recipes. And if someone shares it with you, that’s a connection,” says Athakhanh. “They love you. So when I give a recipe to a friend or family member, it’s because I love them. And when I share my cooking with the community, it’s because I love really, really Atlanta. I love the people here. They’re the reason we’re still open after COVID.
Once upon a time, Athakhanh dreamed of turning Snackboxe Bistro into a franchise. But not more. Two restaurants are enough.
“I think that’s it for me,” she says. “No more expansion. No franchise. No nothing. Once it gets too much, I feel like my heart is gone. With Lao cuisine, you have to cook with your heart.
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