Korean Ssam Bar

Korea is now often in the media, and many Americans have consequently become interested in its food and culture. While a wide array of ethnic cuisines are available in Sarasota, Florida (a mecca for the arts, outdoor activities, and nature situated on the Gulf Coast) Korean Ssam Bar has attracted a loyal following since opening on March 22, 2017.

Yun and Yup Namgoong are the owners of this popular restaurant. Yun immigrated to Sarasota at age 17, moving from Incheon, South Korea, with her family. Her father, a master of Tae Kwon Do, had opened a martial arts academy in Sarasota a year before she arrived.

Yun attended Bayshore High School in Bradenton and worked part-time for the well-known beach-side restaurant, Sandbar, owned by Ed Chiles, son of former governor of Florida, Lawton Chiles. The Sandbar’s gorgeous location on Anna Maria Island and its iconic status in the area made this a terrific place for Yun to learn the restaurant business. She worked several years as a hostess at the Sandbar, chosen, no doubt, for this “front of the house” responsibility due to her outgoing personality and ability to make everyone feel comfortable and welcome.

Yun graduated from the University of South Florida. She was working for the State of Florida as a social worker when the opportunity to get into the restaurant business came her way. By then she had married Yup, who is a graduate of the prestigious Ringling College of Art and Design. They took over a Korean restaurant in Bradenton, just north of Sarasota, and successfully ran it for 11 years.

Yun and Yup learned through restaurant contacts that an Indian restaurant in Sarasota was up for sale. They seized this opportunity and Korean Ssam Bar was born. Yun left her job in social services and moved to the “back of the house” to take over cooking while Yup took over the “front of the house.” With his calm nature, he manages the busy restaurant with warmth and a quiet reserve that makes guests feel comfortable and welcomed.

The new restaurant’s name is a play on words based on Yun’s fond memories of the Sandbar. Ssam means “lettuce wrap,” a Korean specialty, and so Ssam Bar was named!

For the cooking, Yun drew on her childhood memories of food preparation in Korea. She is influenced by the home cooking of her grandparents, parents, and extended family. The recipes Yun has developed are traditionally Korean. She procures traditional Korean ingredients and makes all of her own sauces and condiments. Marinated meats are based on techniques that she learned from her family.

One recipe Yun remembers from her childhood is kimchi, a staple in Korean cuisine—a traditional side dish of salted and fermented vegetables, known for its digestive and nutritional qualities. It is classified as a probiotic. With growing public interest in healthy eating, SSam Bar is recognized as a destination for local “foodies.”

At Ssam Bar, Yun prepares 15 heads of napa cabbage a week. Compare this to the 100 heads of cabbage that her family prepared each November in Korea. There, the tradition of burying the cabbage in the ground in earthenware containers was carefully followed. Kimchi-making was a family event and fostered social occasions at the start and the end of production. Often, a feast of pork and fresh kimchi was made to celebrate the beginning of the process. Since this was a winter staple, the kimchi had ice on it when taken from the ground in small quantities until it ran out in February or March.

While Yun recalls the first year of Ssam Bar as hectic and somewhat stressful, her golden rule of saying “Please” and “Thank you” to everyone working in the kitchen and her good helpers who “calm her down” are the secrets to her success. Now Yun enjoys the harmony of a well-run kitchen and is delighted to prepare home cooking for her many customers with the support of a great staff: Yup and their two children, daughter Bari and son Yho, who also help out.

Our group of four diners sampled many dishes and enjoyed them all immensely. The small, intimate dining room was filled with locals: students from nearby colleges, professionals, retirees, families with young children, and food aficionados.

Recently, a mother/daughter pair returned from a trip to South Korea. The daughter is a big fan of K-Pop music and they were happy to compliment Yun, saying that they missed her style of cooking while in Korea. They returned to Ssam Bar the day after they arrived home from their trip to share their travel and culinary adventure stories.

We enjoyed:

Red Wine by the glass/Cabernet Sauvignon
Barley Tea/Yun says its mild flavor is a favorite of the Queen of England!

Korean Dishes:
Kimchee Pancake Appetizer
Pork Dumplings Appetizer
Spring Rolls Appetizer
Stone Hot Pot/Bibimbap: Rice topped with choice of protein, or spicy squid, and a fried egg, in a sizzling stone bowl, usually mixed with Gochujang, the traditional Korean pepper paste
Black Bean Sauce with Udon Noodles/Jajangmyeon
Thin sliced Marinated Beef/Beef Bulgogi: The favorite dish sampled that night
Lettuce Wrap/Ssam with condiments: kimchi (fresh and aged), chayote and cucumber, potato. This item, while not officially on the menu, is available by special request

Two weeks later, we returned to Ssam Bar to taste a dish that is available, by order, at least a week in advance: Samgyetang/Ginseng Chicken Soup. It is a favorite dish in Korea, served during the very hot summer months…. perfect for a hot summer day in Sarasota! The recipe revolves around cooking a small chicken stuffed with ginseng, other herbs, sticky rice, and red dates. The recipe is said to have medicinal qualities. We were eager to sample it, as one person in our party had recently been hospitalized with digestive issues and might benefit from tasting this new dish. It is served piping hot. As the Korean saying goes, “Eating the hot soup is fighting heat with heat.”

We enjoyed the presentation when the condiments were lined up in front of us and the pot of Samgyetang presented at the table. We helped ourselves to the broth and pieces of the chicken, which fell off the bones. It is a simple, pleasing dish, with no salt or heavy spices. Adding the condiments and rice, served as sides, added spice, saltiness and extra flavor. We highly recommend this dish.

On our second visit, there were two long tables with 8 to 10 people in a party. Some of the other guests were local Koreans, a few regular customers, several business people out for an early dinner, and a curious vacationer.

Everything we sampled was made with care, presented well, and delicious.

When asked what the family does for vacations or breaks, Yun explained that her children’s best memories are visits to Korea. They enjoy going camping in the Korean mountains with Yup’s family. Part of the experience is to bring a stove to cook outside, and they sleep in tents.

Give Korean Ssam Bar a try. You will want to go back often once you taste Yun’s home-style Korean cooking.

Visit:
Korean Ssam Bar
1303 N Washington Blvd, Unit E
Sarasota, FL 34236
Tel: 941.312.6264

About the Author:
Sara Sinaiko is a writer living in Sarasota, Florida. Beginning in September, 2019, she is honored to serve as the Fair Food Program Development Director (ciw-online.org; fairfoodstandards.org).

Sabores del Sur

“I hope my parents are proud of me,” pauses Chef Guisell Osorio of Sabores del Sur as a tear swells in her eye. “I know they are”, she then reassures herself. Guisell left Chile at 21 to pursue her dream in the “Land of Opportunity”: the United States. Ever since she was a child, Guisell loved to cook and prepare food. Building off of her grandma’s homemade recipes, Guisell created what is now a well-known South American bistro in Walnut Creek, a suburb of San Francisco. Her family was nothing less but proud. Last year, before her father passed away in Chile, he asked Guisell’s mom to get a special cookbook stuffed deep in the closet which was filled with his own recipes. He asked that the book be sent to Guisell. With this gesture he wanted to show his love and support for Guisell's passion. “If only his writing was a bit more clear”, laughs Guisell as she reminisces about her parents.

Sabores del Sur, which means "Flavors from the South”, is located in the business area near the Pleasant Hill BART station. A flow of business customers come here for lunch from nearby office buildings. Once inside, the place envelops you like a cozy blanket. Traditional and modern Latin music plays subtly in the background. The restaurant is  well lit, with comfortable chairs accompanying each table. At the far corner of the restaurant, an exotic collection of Chilean objects are put on display, two of those delicate antiques being Guisell’s grandma’s old sewing machine and telephone.

As I looked around the unique restaurant, I noticed that only women worked behind the counter. I quickly found out that almost every one of those women had children and Chef Guisell ensures that each employee is able to balance family and work. “I make sure they are paid fairly and are treated well.”

Guisell is often the person who takes your order. If you are there for the first time, she will give you several recommendations. You are treated as a special guest.

The menu has about 4-5 choices in every category, which makes it simple and easy to choose. In addition, there are a lot of familiar international names on the menu. Chile’s multi-cultural heritage had a significant influence on its cuisine. German influence can be seen in the sausages like Prietas, Chilean-style blood sausage served with potatoes. The traditional Shepherd's Pie (Pastel de Choclo) has a Chilean twist by using a summer corn crust rather than potatoes.

Scanning the menu intently, I decided that I was craving a meaty sandwich. Guisell was at the register and recommended Churrasco (Grilled steak with tomato, avocado & aioli), but I had my heart set on Pan con Chicharrón (Peruvian-style fried pork with sweet potato & onion salad).

Interestingly, Pan Con Chicharron is traditionally eaten for breakfast, but I couldn’t even finish half for lunch - it was so filling! The flavorful sandwich creates sweet, salty, and tangy flavors by combining pork, sweet potato and red onion relish. Chicharron is a term used for cooking meat, typically pork, by braising and frying to create a tender, but also crispy piece of meat. The sandwich is made on a traditional bread called Marraqueta, Chile’s version of a French baguette.

To go with my sandwich, I wanted to order a soup as well. There were 3 soups on the menu, but Aguadito de Pollo (Peruvian-style organic chicken & rice soup) sounded best at that moment. What made the particular soup very unusual was the sudden, bursting sweet corn flavor. In Peru, they call this soup “levanta-muertos” which means “wakes up the dead” because of its restoring and soothing qualities.

My mom ordered Traditional Chilean empanada since this was the only traditional food we knew before coming to the restaurant. Chileans eat empanadas at any time of the year, but they are most popular during Fiestas Patrias holidays to celebrate Chile’s independence. Every culture seems to have it’s version of these turnover pies (Calzones, Pierogies), yet the Chilean version was definitely a new kick of unique. Empanadas came to South America with the Spanish 500 years ago, and every South American culture has transformed the traditional empanada to their own liking. We decided on the Steak Empanada which was very flavorful due to the exotic Chilean spices and “caldúa”. In Chile, they say the juicier the better. The dough kept the whole ensemble together, making it smooth and able to be cut easily, but at the same time, the empanada didn’t crumble or fall part.

For dessert, we had to try Chef Guiselle’s famous Alfajores - crumbly butter cookies, filled with a thick layer of creamy dulce de leche caramel and dusted in white powdered sugar. Originally, the Spaniards acquired Alfajores from the Middle East. The word “alfajor” actually comes from an old Arabic word that stands for “excellent” or “luxurious”. After Alfajores were brought to South America, every country in the continent made its own version of these cookies, becoming local specialties filled with dulce de le leche, jam, or chocolate, and sometimes coated in a sugar glaze. Chef Guisell’s Alfajores were irresistible and I munched on both cookies even though the second one was meant for someone else.

A lot of different people come to this place: families with South American background, business people from nearby offices, and cultural foodies. As I waited for my order, I noticed one family ordering a red drink poured form a large glass jar. I was curious to try it. It turned out to be chicha morada, a beverage prepared by boiling purple corn with various fruits added in and a pinch of cinnamon along with a few cloves. To me it was delicious and refreshing. This drink is considered to have many health benefits being packed with antioxidants.

About Chef Guisell

Chef Guisell was born in Santiago de Chile in a very large family. She grew up during the 80s under the difficult military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Rules were very strict, an example being that 8 p.m. was the curfew for all people, adults and children. “That’s why people had parties at night”, Guisell exclaimed, “If you didn’t leave on time, you were stuck at someone’s house for the rest of the night, so what’s a better way to spend the evening then a party” It was also a time of “Macho community”, meaning that the girls couldn’t go anywhere without a male chaperone.

When Guisell was 17, she moved to the US with her parents for 2 years and attended a high school in the East Bay. She immediately fell in love with the feeling of freedom of the “Land of Opportunity”. As the family went back to Chile, Guisell promised herself that she would come back.

Guisell returned to the Bay Area 2 years later. The only problem was that she had a mere $27 in her pocket, yet she also held a dream to build her own business. After several rounds of jobs, she slowly began to create her informal business, Sabores del Sur, selling her favorite South American foods to friends and family.

As she developed her business on her own, she found it hard keeping in touch with her family. Her family didn’t have a phone in Chile until the late 90s. In order to speak with her parents, Guisell had to call the community center at a specific time each week. The person from the community center in Chile would run out and call Guisell’s mom. Every minute of the conversation was precious.

To get the authentic recipes from Chile, Guisell would often call her grandmother, who happened to be the only family member in Chile with a phone. At the sky high cost of $2 per minute, she would write down the tips from her grandma and later incorporate the recipes in the building of her restaurant. Many dishes today are based on the same magic recipes from Guisell's abuelita.

But it was not just the mysterious deliciousness of grandma’s recipes. Guisell told us, “One day, I realized that I had it in me, I had a gift of being able to make delicious foods and a way of making people happy with it! I am very blessed because I do what I love. My restaurant is like my living room and I have guests every day. I love it!” Guiselle prepared and built her restaurant for a full year before officially opening it in 2004. Prior to the opening, she did a lot of research, testing, and took what seemed like an infinite amount of culinary and business classes.

“Was it hard building your own restaurant as a woman?”, I asked. “I never thought or assumed that things would be different because I am a woman”, replied Guisell, “ I never thought I would achieve less or could do less. I thought of myself as a person with a dream and I knew that I would work hard, do the right thing, and I would get there.”

Guisell thinks of herself as being very fortunate. When she first started, programs such as La Cocina and Women’s Initiative took her under their wings as a talented entrepreneur and provided commercial kitchen space, industry expertise and other resources for her success.

La Cocina is an incubator for aspiring working class, food entrepreneurs with a mission to improve equity in business ownership for women, immigrants, and people of color. According to La Cocina, “Women account for only 33% of business owners nationwide and still make 46-75 cents for every dollar their white, male counterparts make”.

The other secret for her success? “I always treat those around me with respect, and in return they respect me”, said Guisell, “and I always ask questions. That’s how I learn. When I was little, my aunts would say, ‘do you always have to ask questions, Guisell?’ And I still do.”

In addition, Guisell always keeps researching and learning ways to improve her restaurant. She keeps a journal of ideas that lessons from other accomplished business people and chefs. “There is always something to learn,'' she stated.

Chef Guisell has always been a positive contributor to the community. Sabores del Sur supports Fair Trade, Locally Grown and Buy Local Programs. “I believe in giving back, and I have always lived by this principle”, shared Guisell. When Guisell was just starting out, she would give back by volunteering at the AIDs Foundation and Breast Cancer Foundation events by Cheering, helping set up and clean up after.

Guisell is especially passionate about Chilean Teletón, a charity event held yearly since 1978, which raises funds to help children with developmental disabilities. “This event cut across political divides and got our country together. It helped us create opportunities for children and their families that are often struggling”. Considering herself very blessed, Guisell says she started asking people to donate to Chilean Teleton instead of giving gifts on her birthday. Sometimes during Christmas, she organizes dinners for friends and family and asks guests to contribute to Teleton as a donation in order to attend her event.

It's easy to tell that Chef Guisell has the strength of an iron fist and a soft kind hard for everyone in need. After visiting “Sabores del Sur” , I felt like I had visited a friend in South America, someone who truly cared about me and wanted to make sure my mom and l felt comfortable and ate well. I hope to come back to her place soon with my friends so that they become a part of this experience too.

Visit:
Sabores del Sur
3003 Oak Rd #105,
Walnut Creek, CA 94597

Agra Cafe

Agra Cafe

Agra Cafe is tucked into the corner of a happening strip mall at the junction of Sunset and Fountain in Silverlake, Agra Cafe offers a delicious and authentic taste of the Punjab region of India. As soon as you walk in, the enticing aroma of spices lets you know you’re in for something special. The cozy red-tinted mildly incensed interior, decorated with Indian artwork, provides the perfect, inviting space for a traditional Indian meal for a romantic night out, a large family gathering or dinner-for-one any night of the week. Lucky Singh, a friendly and dapper member of the family who own Agra, describes their cuisine as much like the the food in his native Northern India. The combination of basic spices and other special ingredients makes for the unique, yet typical, cuisine. Of course, Lucky explains, each chef also adds their personal touch, and the high quality of the ingredients and spices that Agra sources from their local and global purveyors also makes the food exceptional. In the late 1990s, Lucky’s Uncle Amrik Singh arrived in the U.S, and initially found work driving an ice cream truck. He was financially judicious and in 2008, was able to buy a Bangladeshi restaurant with his savings. After learning a lot from the former owner, Singh transformed the place and Agra Cafe was born. Immediately following the opening, family from India, including Lucky, came to America to help with the restaurant. Lucky, used to a life of farming in Northern India and unable to speak English fluently, struggled to make himself at home in the U.S. However, through Lucky’s relationships with customers, painstakingly-acquired language skills and a lot of hard work, he has hit his stride. Today, almost all the staff at Agra Cafe are family; in total two generations of around twenty cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles work there. While Agra’s business continues to thrive, there are always some challenges like finding certain specific ingredients, and the proper utensils. Just sourcing the unique furnace-looking stove or 'tandoor' took a lot of doing.

Additionally, finding chefs who are capable of cooking this type of food isn’t that easy in America. However, the Singh family believes their employees can rise from dishwashing personnel to chef by watching and learning from the original chefs, and this has proven true at Agra Cafe. According to Lucky, over the past few years, Agra has expanded into more delivery-based service which is great for me because I order from Agra every Sunday night!

Photo: Agra Variety of Curry - Agra Lamb - Agra Curry Shrimp


With a menu ranging from currys, kormas, vindaloos, to soups of all kinds, to vegetable dishes, to balti or tandoori plates, it is safe to say that Agra’s chefs are versatile, and that there is something for everyone to love. Each member of my family has a different favorite. My sister loves the Chicken Tikka Masala with its bright orange fenugreek laden sauce and mild flavor, while my parents always choose from the deep hot vinegar-and-tomato-based Vindaloos. My weekly favorite is the Lamb Korma accompanied by a Cheese Naan, polished off with a rice pudding. The creamy texture of the Korma sauce served over rice makes for an incredibly delicious dish rich with flavors of ginger, garlic, and cumin. The thin-pizza-like Naan is ideal to mop up every last bite. Finally, the rice pudding is made with the same Basmati rice used for regular dishes which gives it a thinner texture, and is unique, refreshing and light.

At Agra Cafe, each dish can be ordered at a range of different spice levels going from mild to very spicy. The condiments that come with most dishes - a deep burgundy tamarind chutney and a bright green chili coriander chutney - are homemade and worth trying. Plus, Agra Cafe also offers a variety of enticing Indian drinks like Chai, Lassis, and some of India’s best beers like Kingfisher and Taj Mahal. Overall, Agra Cafe is a truly unique and authentic dive into North Indian cuisine, and probably the best Indian food you can get without going to India!

Visit:
Visit-Agra-Cafe 
4325 Sunset Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90029
323- 665-7890
Hours 11:30-1am

Agra

Sumela Restaurant

Sumela Restaurant in High Point, North Carolina

A highly popular Turkish restaurant, Sumela Restaurant is very busy, especially at lunchtime. Tucked away in a strip mall the ambiance is cheerful and pleasing with plants and Turkish decor — copper pots displayed on shelves, beautiful Turkish ceramic plates and red carpet displayed on the walls. Turkish music plays in the background and the restaurant has plenty of natural daylight. Outdoor seating is a popular choice during warm weather but we sat indoors as it was a cold day.


Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

I met with the owner, Mehmet Cakal to interview him about his background and how he came to open the restaurant.
Mehmet is soft-spoken, but I sense his strength. He hails from Trabzon, Turkey--a province located on the coast of the Black Sea and at the foothills of the Pontic Alps in the NE corner of Turkey. The area is famous for an ancient Greek monastery, Soumela.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

This Greek Orthodox monastery was founded in 386 AD and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The monastery was built on Mela Mountain within the Pontic Mountains range, in the Maçka district of Trabzon Province in modern Turkey. Soumela means "Black Mountain." The monastery sits on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff.
After immigrating to the USA from Trabzon, Turkey in 1989 Mehmet started a new life in Williamsburg, Virginia. Seven years later he moved to North Carolina. He opened a restaurant in High Point, NC in 1997 and named it Sumela Restaurant--after the Greek monastery. At the restaurant, there is a framed picture of the monastery hanging on the wall, in honor of the monastery.
Initially, Mehmet served grilled hamburgers. Over time people started asking for Turkish food. He realized there was a need and market, especially with the twice-yearly International Furniture Mart Event where designers and customers come from all over the world. Not only is his cuisine popular but locals, visitors, and employees adore him.

Mehmet describes Turkish cuisine as being diverse and includes a lot of vegetables in addition to lamb, beef and chicken. Friends and family members enjoy getting together often for meals. A large pot or platter of food is placed in the center so everyone can eat together. A popular Turkish food is Doner--or Gyro as it is known here. As Mehmet hails from the Black Sea area, seafood--especially fish--is a staple in that region.
The spices he uses commonly in Turkish cuisine include various kinds of dry chili peppers that may be roasted and added to grilled meat kebab marinades. Each chili pepper has a unique flavor. The spices are more flavorful when bought at the spice bazaars in Istanbul. Other spices include cumin, pepper, paprika, rosemary, and oregano. Unlike in middle eastern cuisine, he rarely uses saffron. Dessert may be baklava or rice pudding, both of which are very popular at the restaurant.
Growing up in Trabzon, Turkey as a child, Mehmet helped his father with the family-run business--a convenience store--in Turkey. His mother and sister taught him some basic cooking. Since then he has taught himself the finer aspects of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine and even today Mehmet’s cooking continues to evolve as he aspires for perfection. Having eaten several times at the restaurant I can easily say he has a very refined style and his restaurant is always busy.

In the last 5 years, he overcame 2 major challenges: first, prolonged road construction that prevented easy access to his customers and his business suffered a serious setback; second, an accident where a car crashed into his restaurant destroying the prep area—the restaurant was shut down for 6 months.
Mehmet took me into his kitchen where he stirred a pot of rice pudding that was simmering on the stove. He also had a pot of boiling sugar syrup to pour over the baklava that was baking in the oven. His chef, Santos, has been working for him for the better part of 20 years.
Mehmet has 2 sons who help him run the restaurant. At home, on Sundays, Mehmet cooks fish for his wife and family. As his wife is allergic to spices, he avoids using them when he cooks her a meal.

I came back on a later date for dinner there with a friend. Everything we ordered was served within a few minutes. With guidance from Mehmet’s son about the different items on the extensive menu we decided to have a 3-course meal and it was a sumptuous experience eating authentic Turkish food!

Sumela Restaurant

For starters, the menu offered many choices such as Baba Ganoush, Spanakopita, Hummus, Tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and Turkish meat pie. We ordered falafel. Having eaten falafel at many places I can honestly say these were the best—crunchy on the outside with an explosion of flavors inside. Falafel is a deep-fried vegetable patty made with chickpeas ground together with parsley, onions, garlic, and aromatic herbs. The cold yogurt sauce served with the falafel provided a refreshing contrast. In addition to Turkish food, the menu featured several Italian items so we also ordered mozzarella sticks for appetizers and these were also the best I’ve ever had.

Sumela Restaurant

There was a large variety of entrees ranging from Kofte (char-grilled meatballs made from fresh ground beef mixed with chopped onions, parsley, garlic, and spices) beef, lamb and chicken kebabs, salads, wraps, subs and Italian food.


We chose the Tavuk Shish Kebab—chicken kebabs on a skewer and they were delicious! Chargrilled after being marinated in spices overnight they were perfectly seasoned, tender and moist. Served with a yogurt sauce, mildly flavored rice and “Pyaz” ( a fresh salad with cannellini beans, onions, tomatoes, and parsley) they made for a thoughtfully balanced combination.
Wanting to try the Mediterranean entrees we also ordered lemon chicken with a tangy sauce, capers and mushrooms served with steamed vegetables, fresh pita bread, and the best French fries I’ve had.


Dessert was a golden brown homemade pistachio baklava - Mehmet showed me how they were baked in the oven while he stirred a pot of sugar syrup on the stove. Biting into the baklava I could taste the crisp flaky layers with the sweet sugar syrup adding delicious juiciness to the lower layers. Crushed pistachios were sprinkled on the golden brown top and also in between the layers.

Sumela Restaurant
Sumela Restaurant

We were full but it was hard to resist the homemade creamy rice pudding flavored gently with rose water, cinnamon and vanilla. The bill with tip was about $50 for the 2 of us,

 Mehmet has elevated every dish served at the restaurant... A great experience will definitely go again!

Visit:
Sumela Turkish Restaurant
805 N. Main Street #101, High Point, North Carolina 27262
Timings: Open daily from 10:30 am to 9 am
CLOSED Sundays
Restaurant Facebook

My Interviews with restaurant owner.

About the Author:
Hi, I’m a high school senior. I enjoy traveling all over the world. I’m also interested in exploring international cultural diversity in my community. I interview local immigrants and refugees and share their stories on a Facebook page.
Please visit my FB page to read these stories

Han Lao

In quintessential St. Louis fashion, no matter what street you take you will likely find yourself surrounded by restaurants serving various types of cuisine. If that street you took happens to be Hanley Road just off the highway that takes you to downtown St. Louis, then you may find yourself looking at a sign advertising Laotian food and wondering, “What exactly is Laotian food?” And so you walk in to Han Lao, the Lao-Thai Kitchen in Brentwood.Han Lao Laotian Food dining room

You first notice its elegant, modern American decor. However, you also get the sense that this isn’t a stuffy, high-end locale but instead has a casual air to it, particularly considering that most dishes on their menu are under $10. It looks like the kind of place you could go for a quick lunch with friends and then go again for an elegant date night.

That sense of adaptability is an accurate representation of restaurant owner Thom Chantharasy and his family. Chantharasy was born in Laos, a Southeast Asian country neighboring China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar. When he was only four, Laos experienced a civil war that saw the ruling monarch deposed by Communist forces.

“If the Communists felt like some people were particularly well-off, they would say ‘you don’t need that much’ and they would take it away,” says Chantharasy of his family’s motivation to flee Laos. “Late at night, we crossed the Mekong River into Thailand and just hoped that no one got shot. My parents, siblings, and grandparents were in a raft and none of us could swim except for my dad, so he had to make sure everyone got across safely.”

Upon reaching camps in Thailand, Chantharasy and his family were able to find sponsors who would transport them to the United States so that they could start a new life. His family initially lived in the projects of San Diego while his parents worked at a factory making windshield wipers. “My first memory of America was the pilot of our plane giving me those little plastic wings,” Chantarasy says. “We didn’t have much growing up. My mom tried to make American food to help us assimilate, so when I was 10 she made me a pizza but she used ketchup instead of tomato sauce. I told her that I preferred her Laotian cooking.”

Chantharasy eventually went to college in Tennessee and then lived in Memphis with his wife. It was there that he got his start in the restaurant business, and he had the choice of running a restaurant in either Memphis or St. Louis. He and his wife chose St. Louis, where Chantharasy eventually started his own Japanese restaurant, Robata, in Maplewood. Building off the success of Robata, Chantharasy later opened Han Lao to help his children connect with his culture.

“I started this restaurant with the idea of giving my kids more opportunities to eat the food from my side of the family. I want them to be able to eat Laotian food whenever they want.”

Han Lao Laotian Food bar

The people of St. Louis are fortunate beneficiaries of this decision, as they now also get to experience the Laotian food of Chantharasy’s youth. Chantharasy understands how many may not be familiar with Laotian cuisine, and so he decided to have his restaurant serve Thai food as well. “We advertise as a Laotian and Thai food place, and we use Thai food as a buffer. Most people haven’t had Laotian food, so the Thai food gets them in and then they notice the Laotian food and give it a try.”

Laotian food shares many traits with other Southeast Asian dishes, yet it maintains a distinct emphasis on powerful tastes. “People say Lao food is spicy, but to me it’s a combination of different things,” Chantharasy says. “You can have it sweet, sour, salty, and savory all at the same time or you can have one flavor at a time. It’s similar to Thai food except Laotian food can be spicier and more sour. We go through a full case of limes in 3-4 days.”

This combination of sensations was evident in the Khao Poon, a signature dish of Laotian culture. “If you go to a birthday party, 99% of families would make this,” Chantharasy says. “We make ours using red curry and coconut milk, but there are also different variations of it.” The spice of the curry and the sourness from the lime stand out in this dish, creating a special blend of strong flavors without being overwhelming. The coconut pork broth and assorted vegetables complete the dish in traditional Southeast Asian fashion. Other Laotian dishes include Khao Piak Sen, which is similar to chicken noodle soup with its chicken broth and rice noodles, and Thum Muk Huong, a dish of smashed green papaya with pork rinds.

Laotian Food Thum Muk Huong

Other options at Han Lao include Thai staples such as Pad Thai and Pad See Ew, as well as Vietnamese-style chicken pho. There are also a plethora of meat options, with their chicken skin appetizer and grilled short ribs.

The unique emphasis on spiciness and sourness differentiates Laotian food from other seemingly similar types of cuisine. And while Laos may be a foreign country to many, Han Lao gives the people of St. Louis the unique opportunity to hear the story of Chantharasy’s family, including the sacrifices and hardships they have overcome to get here. “I want people to enjoy Laotian food, and to know that spicy is okay,” Chantharasy says. “My mom said she’s proud because she didn’t expect my food to be good. I told her it wouldn’t be as good as hers, but she said it’s pretty close.”

Visit :
Han Lao
Monday to Thursday 11:00 AM to 9:00 PM;
Friday & Saturday 11:00 AM to 10:00 PM
1250 Strassner Drive, St. Louis, MO 63144
(314) 932-1354

About the Author:
Jeet Das is a medical student that grew up in St. Louis and has lived in Los Angeles and Boston. He can likely be found at a nearby buffet.