We have precious few opportunities for Lao cuisine in Dallas. Perhaps you’ve been to Nalinh Market in Irving, half grocery store, half restaurant, tables crammed up against aisles, a complement to the dishes crowded and bright with flavor. Fresh noodles, pork rinds, and long beans hold court under baskets for sticky rice that hang from the ceiling in varying sizes.
Or maybe you’ve been to Sabaidee on Lemmon Ave., where the Lao portion of the menu features Lao spicy sausage and cured pork and coconut rice in a lettuce wrap.
If you’ve had Thai food you’ve frolicked with the flavors—that particularly savory balance of sour, spicy, salty, sweet. Dishes like larb—ground chicken, pork, or beef tousled with lime, chiles, cilantro, green onions, and toasted rice powder—are part of a cuisine that has you brush up against fragrant pork sausage and flavorful confetti of meat and rice swaddled in lettuce leaves.
For those who crave Lao food’s school of flavor, there is Saap Lao Kitchen, the team-approach family endeavor that’s taken the pop-up’s guerilla approach to spreading Lao flavor.
“It happened organically,” says Cliff Douangdara, one of Saap’s all-in-the-family founders.
It started, in fact, with a New Year’s resolution: four male cousins who grew up in the kitchen learning from their mothers, who are sisters, determined that they would introduce others to the food they grew up with. Not quite two years and a couple more cousins later, under the name Saap Lao Kitchen they peddle vibrant street-style food at pop-ups and are a presence at farmers markets (Dallas, Grapevine, Grand Prairie), with their sights ultimately set on a brick and mortar.
Pop-ups, like the one last month at Ten Bells Tavern in the Bishop Arts District, might feature khao piek sen (Lao chicken noodle soup), their handmade rice and tapioca noodles bathing in a chicken broth with green onions, cilantro, fried garlic and shallots, and a drizzle of house-made garlic chili oil. Or nam khao, crispy coconut rice salad tossed served with lettuce spears. The picnic-like assortment they call their Lao barbecue meat basket includes housemade Lao sausage and grilled chicken wings served with sticky rice, the sour dip called jeow som, and the fresh crunch of pickled watermelon rind, cucumber, pineapple, and raw long beans. It’s “a basic starter kit of what Lao food means for us,” says Douangdara.
Meanwhile, pending more pop-ups, we tide ourselves over with their Lao-style beef jerky, which they worked off taste memory to recreate. Dehydrated with a marinade, then flash fried so the sugars caramelize, it’s a saucy jerky, dark as lacquer, sticky-sweet and spicy, like beef jerky meets teriyaki. It’s addictive, whether eaten straight or, as tradition would dictate, with sticky rice—a worthy advancement of their goal to highlight Lao textures and flavors. You can pick up the jerky at a farmers market or online.