FORKLIFE traces the journeys of immigrant food traditions taking root in the United States, narrated by the D.C. chefs and cooks who carried them here.
The first time I tasted Lao food was at Bangkok Golden (now Padaek) in Falls Church, Virginia. Bangkok Golden was special because it served primarily Thai cuisine but had off-menu Lao food—and we knew it was only a matter of time before everyone in Washington wanted to try Chef Seng’s not-so-secret dishes. I kept going back to the restaurant week after week. Although the funky smells and flavors were unfamiliar to my palate at the time, the warmth of the restaurant’s staff and owner captivated me.
Opening a Lao restaurant was Seng Luangrath’s lifelong dream, but she was unsure whether the American palate was ready. Many people helped propel her dream to reality. Fans helped research potential places to open her first on-menu Lao restaurant. She got to test out recipes at a pop-up event in the popular ramen restaurant Toki Underground on H Street, thanks to owner Erik Bruner-Yang. With encouragement and support from the local food community, Seng gained the confidence to open Thip Khao in Columbia Heights in 2014, expanding and promoting her vision of what she has dubbed the “Lao Food Movement.”
The phrase thip khao refers to a sticky rice steamer basket that is commonly used in Laos and diasporic communities. Sticky rice is an integral part of Lao cuisine and culture. In fact, it was the first dish Seng learned to cook from her grandmother. People eat this daily staple with almost every meal, alongside other dishes such as papaya salad or laab (minced meat and chili). Sticky rice may seem mundane, but it is so crucial to Lao identity that Lao people refer to themselves as the “children of sticky rice” (luk khao niaow), whether they live within or outside of Laos.
Following Seng’s devotion to Lao cuisine, her son Chef Bobby Pradachith is eager to embrace his heritage as a child of sticky rice. Born and raised in Virginia, he reimagines Lao cuisine by incorporating the dishes he grew up eating with techniques he learned in culinary school and in fine dining jobs. His interest in historical Lao recipes and methods going back centuries also inspires him to create new dishes informed by tradition. From pursuing a career as a chef to returning to his parents’ restaurant business after gaining experience in some of the top kitchens in D.C., Bobby has forged his own path while honoring his family and embracing that unmistakable Lao funk.
I have been carving out my own path as well. Now that I’ve been working with Chef Seng and Bobby for several years, Lao food feels as comforting and familiar as the Panamanian dishes I grew up with. And it’s not just because the food is delicious and the ingredients are similar—it’s because Seng and Bobby cook and serve their food with such warmth and passion that feeling like part of their restaurant family comes naturally to everyone we work with.
Every day I walk into Thip Khao, I am walking into Chef Seng and Bobby’s home. I am a part of their sticky rice family. Among the many restaurants I’ve worked, I’ve never met a group of colleagues or business owners who are so concerned about my well-being. They ask if I have eaten, and how much I miss my family. This year, I told Seng’s husband, Boun, that my family from Panama was going to Orlando to celebrate my niece’s first birthday. Even though I didn’t have enough vacation time saved, Boun told me, “JC, you go see your family.” I continued working from Orlando, but I also had dinner with my family every night.
I am not the only staff member who lives apart from my family. Most of the Thip Khao employees’ families are in other countries. When Chef Seng makes a “family meal” for the staff, she won’t let you start your shift before taking time to eat, and she won’t let you leave empty-handed if you’re done for the day. As soon as your first day is over, you become part of the family. It does not matter if you are Lao, Latino, Thai, American—sticky rice unites us.
As an immigrant, there are very tough moments when I remember how far away my family is. It’s easy to feel like I am alone. This sense of disconnection can worsen due to the high turnover in the food industry. However, working at Thip Khao eases the pain because I have a second home. Seng understands the struggle more than anyone else, as she herself experienced it as a refugee. Thanks to Boun and Seng’s openness, Bobby also has a great understanding of the struggles of immigrants and refugees.
At Thip Khao, we make new friends and create strong bonds. Some leave the restaurant to move to a different city—I did so myself a few years ago. But if they return, some find their way back to their Thip Khao home. I made that return journey as well. It’s a testament to the passion Seng and Bobby have for their work, their culture, their food. Like the rice served in a basket with every meal, we stick together.
Thip Khao’s Laab Taohu
“Minced Tofu Herb Salad”
1 lb. tofu (medium firm), or another protein source
1 tbsp. fish sauce (replace with soy sauce for vegetarian/vegan alternative)
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 1/2 tbsp. lime juice
1/2 tsp. chilies, minced
2 tsp. toasted rice powder
1 tbsp. fried garlic
1 tbsp. fried shallots
1 tbsp. lemongrass, thinly sliced
1 tsp. galangal, minced (or ginger)
1 kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. cilantro, rough chopped
1/2 tbsp. shallots, thinly sliced
1/2 tbsp. scallions, sliced
2 tbsp. mint leaves picked
- Dice the tofu and season with fish sauce, soy sauce, lime juice, and chilies. Mix the ingredients evenly.
- To the mix, add fried garlic, fried shallots, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, cilantro, shallots, scallions, and mint. Carefully toss the ingredients together.
- To finish, add in the toasted rice powder, and carefully toss in the salad.
- Present the dish on a plate, along with fresh vegetables on the side as an accompaniment for the salad. Enjoy!
Thip Khao is located at 3462 Fourteenth St. NW in Washington, D.C.
JC Gibbs is the media and marketing manager for Thip Khao, Padaek, and the Lao Food Movement. She is also a Panamanian cook, studying food history while enjoying life through food writing and photography.