How often do we really think about where our food comes from? Not the ingredients themselves, but the dishes. Why a hamburger? Why nachos? Why devil an egg? Sometimes the story behind the food is amusing (like the legend of the potato chip), but more importantly, it’s always culturally relevant. It wasn’t too long ago people were limited to the ingredients their regions afforded them. It’s why the foods of some areas are rich in herbs and spices. Why some focus on seafood or vegetarian dishes and others favor red-meat-heavy diets. Lao Laan-Xang is Madison’s 30-plus-year-old Laotian restaurant whose food not only distinguishes its flavors from Chinese and Thai, but also raises the bar of what we should expect from East and Southeast Asian cuisine.
Bounyong and Christine Inthachith, mother and daughter founders of Lao Laan-Xang, came to the United States as refugees in 1980 along with Bounyong’s three other children when Christine was in grade school. “That was after the war in Vietnam and the civil war in Laos,” says Christine. Though history books note those conflicts ended in 1975, for those living in the region, the Pathet Lao communist takeover was responsible for over 100,000 Laotian refugees only five years later.
“We crossed the border from Laos to Thailand,” says Christine. “We were in the camps waiting to be processed, and we were in the Philippines through the U.S. base. Our family was sponsored by Catholic Relief Services. The couple that sponsored us were like another set of parents. They were older; their kids were out to college. My father served in the army helping the U.S. side, which helped us get processed as refugees a little bit more quickly.”
When they eventually arrived in Madison, Christine and Bounyong opened the first Lao Laan-Xang in 1990 on Odana Road. There were unique challenges, like having only two categories in the yellow pages to list the restaurant under: Chinese or Ethnic. Fortunately, educating the public on Laotian food would happen over time. To Christine and her mother, the opportunity was “the American Dream for us. I was still very young, and [my mother] wanted to have her own business. She has the passion.” To this day, her mother prepares a lot of the food—particularly the sauces.
While Christine and I spoke, she offered me an eggroll. I expected the eggroll we’ve all had. You know the one, tightly packed, a little crunchy, a little bland, but overall serviceable. What I was given was so much better. Flaky on the outside, great taste throughout, each ingredient serving a purpose. And everything tasted so fresh, from the egg to the mung bean noodles, carrots, cabbage, shitake mushroom, and green onion. Yet, looking back, I still think about how well it was all complemented by the bright, flavorful ginger sauce.
Unfortunately, the Odana Road location didn’t last, but the Willy Street location has been around since 1997. The space is very sentimental to Christine. “We’re really happy to be in this community and to be supporting this community,” says Christine. “Customers have told us how much they appreciate our being here, and, of course, we appreciate our customers. … The food brings us together. If you visit Laos, you will often hear the greeting kin khao, which means join us to eat. You may be just a passerby, but there’s that warm hospitality. Join me for a meal.”
Lao Laan-Xang isn’t just sharing Laotian food with the Madison area; it’s sharing Christine and her family’s story—their values. Many of the dishes take a long time to make, and they wouldn’t dare cut corners. This is where Christine feeds her kids. Consider one of the house specialties, Moak Pa. Steamed catfish mixed with ground pork, dill, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, and other herbs portioned out and wrapped in banana leaves to be steam cooked. “It takes all day to make that,” says Christine. “I know my mom starts early in the morning, and by the time she’s done steaming, it’s already evening.”
Laotian street food is offered as well in their Thum Som, shredded green papaya, fresh garlic, chilis, shrimp paste, tamarind, lime, cherry tomatoes, Thai eggplant, and fish sauce, alongside the national dish of Laos, Larb. In addition to its tasty ingredients, choice of finely minced meat tossed with shallots, rice coriander, and other herbs and spices, Larb literally translates to “good luck and prosperity,” thoughtfully encapsulating Laotian hospitality.
Great food and optimism, however, don’t grant immunity to the reality and struggles of COVID. As of this writing, Christine and her family are having to make some difficult decisions. “It’s really scary sometimes,” she says. “I remember when COVID first hit, I think it was March here, and everything was pretty much shut down. Every time the number of cases goes up, it’s like we have no tables. And as a business owner, I was like, ‘Wow…what’s going on? Are we going to be closing our doors pretty soon?’ … Looking at real numbers, we’re basically paying people to come and eat our food.”
Friendly reminder: support your favorite businesses and be a little adventurous when choosing what’s for dinner. There are so many restaurants in Madison, it can be overwhelming, but I think it’s worth it to find new favorites while continuing to patronize the old ones. Christine points out how lucky we are to have access to so many different authentic foods.
Son, Christine’s brother, shared with me the domino effects of perception. How one perception we have of the world, whether harmful or beneficial, influences our other thoughts and beliefs to create new perceptions. Even the simplest act can be the catalyst for community-wide mindfulness and awareness toward contemplating the ripple effects of our decisions. When it comes to supporting local businesses, we should be intentional with our spending. As luck would have it, I know a really good place to buy a few eggrolls.
Kyle Jacobson is the lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.
2098 Atwood Avenue
Madison, WI 53704