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.”
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.
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.”
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
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.