I fell for Soul Lao the way I’ve fallen for a lot of things lately: eyes watering lightly, nostrils running hard, heavy breathing that gives way to a bout of the hiccups, and a scramble to the refrigerator to get chocolate milk.
It’s this hot dipping sauce Soul Lao co-owner Sabrina Boualaphanh makes. She doesn’t have a scary name for it – it’s just called “spicy green sauce” – and its light aquamarine, creamy appearance doesn’t convey danger at all. Go ahead! Plunge your food into that little cup and take a big ol’ bite. You won’t have to wait long. Heat will spread across your tongue, then eventually to the back of your throat and the roof of your mouth. You won’t stop dipping your food in that sauce, though. Believe that.
Boualaphanh uses green Thai chili peppers sourced from St. Paul’s Hmongtown Marketplace. Cilantro and lemongrass add a little funk, and buttermilk smooths out the mixture. They employ a secret ingredient, too.
When I first emailed Boualaphanh about it, she titled herself “Unapologetically Spicy Sauce Maker” in the signature of her reply.
Eric Phothisanh, Soul Lao’s co-owner and Boualaphanh’s husband, says people ask for this sauce – and love it – more than one might suspect given that “Minnesota hot” stereotype. I first encountered it during a pop-up event at BlackStack Brewing, when it gave a pork belly and cilantro sandwich an exciting extra dimension; at my house, it routinely gives my lazily-made meals some much-needed oomph. Yes, I have some at home now.
It doesn’t officially become an obsession until I start keeping a bottle at work, but I’m only one empty condiment bottle away from that.
MODERN TAKES ON LAO CLASSICS
There are dozens of food trucks in the Twin Cities area, but only one has a shirtless man painted on the sides with a rooster in each hand and the word FAMILY tattooed across his chest. This truck isn’t selling burritos or tater tots. This truck has a rotisserie machine inside of it, and sells whole rotisserie chickens.
“When people come to our truck, it’s that wow factor,” says Phothisanh. “It’s like finding treasure. It’s that golden box of chicken. I feel like we’ve got something special.”
Right about now, Phothisanh and Boualaphanh are getting set to back the Soul Lao food truck out of the garage for the warm seasons. The truck represents Chapter Two of a cooking journey that began for them in 2015. Chapter One culminated with a successful pop-up debut at COOK St. Paul in 2016; their food truck first rolled out in 2017.
Their typical offerings include Naem Khao, a crispy coconut rice salad; oyster wings, which have been the headline draw of their Wing Wednesday residency at BlackStack Brewing; Mak Pa, made with steamed catfish wrapped in banana leaves; and modern takes on classic Lao soups. You can see their whole menu on their website.
Phothisanh learned the original recipe for Soul Lao’s oyster wings from his grandmother, but he and Boualaphanh added garlic and sesame seeds to create their own version. The wings are nicely coated in sauce, not slathered, and rich umami flavor hits your palate like paint splashed against a clean canvas. They’ll probably remind you of something you’ve eaten before, but you’ll probably decide that meal wasn’t as good as these wings.
The connection to Lao cuisine is something Phothisanh and Boualaphanh worry their generation is losing touch with. Boualaphanh says the list of restaurants in this area with Lao food is a short one.
“Tapping into Lao food has caught my interest lately because it’s more than just food for me,” she says. “It’s tracing back to our culture. That’s why we decided to take the leap, [to] try to save our culture by tapping into it.”
Lao cuisine shares similarities with those of Thailand and Cambodia (both of whom share a border with Laos) but one thing Boualaphanh says sets Lao food apart is the use of Padaek, a fermented fish sauce. Phothisanh calls one of the richest flavors you can get. Boualaphanh says they don’t want to be dubbed “traditional,” though, but as willing to put their own imprints on dishes without denaturing them.
“It’s the way we would eat it at home,” Phothisanh adds. “Anytime, any gathering, you would get this.”
A pop-up had been in their minds since they began cooking together back in ‘15, and the opportunity to step on the scene at COOK – whose penchant for hosting kickass popups is well-known among Twin Cities diners – was a welcome one indeed.
“We promoted for like a month,” says Phothisanh. “We talked to everybody. We were hitting people up on social media. We were hungry. We were trying to really get it. We’re still like that. You’ve seriously got to have that edge.”
And at COOK, they really got it. Phothisanh recalls being tickets deep, cranking food out alongside Boualaphanh and thinking “We’re in the weeds now.”
If their most recent Wing Wednesday is any indication, they’re still tickets deep. They served Khaopoon that night with ground chicken and quail eggs. You could’ve had it “jungle style,” too, with blood cubes and chicken feet added. When I was in line for wings, I saw a server hustle past me with four bowls on a tray and thought, “I should get some of that.”
Then I thought, “I’ll wait,” and you should never wait: two hours after they’d opened up shop, and maybe five minutes before I went back to the ordering station, the Khaopoon was completely sold out.
CONNECTIONS TO FAMILY AND COMMUNITY
Phothisanh and Boualaphanh first met about 10 years ago, and have been cooking together since 2015. Phothisanh grew up in Minneapolis; Boualaphanh is from Maple Grove. They have a two-year-old daughter now and, while Boualaphanh called the work-family balance “like having 10 jobs,” she says they wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I took a Soul Lao business card after first meeting them, I recognized Eric’s last name right away – his aunt, Seng Phothisanh, owns the popular Puffy Cream Donuts in Eagan. I had interviewed Seng for another story just a few days beforehand. Turns out, it was at Seng’s house where Eric began learning to cook from his grandmother. He helped Seng out at the shop for a while, he says, and credits her as a tremendous help while he and Boualaphanh were starting Soul Lao.
“She’s one of the great people I’ve got in my corner,” he says. “I feel like, having her enthusiasm with business … she has a knack for it. Whether she knows it or not, she helped me sharpen the tools to achieve this.”
After living on the west coast for a while and helping Phothisanh’s father open a Thai restaurant, Phothisanh and Boualaphanh sought higher culinary learning while visiting Thailand and Laos in 2015. On their website, they point to a visit to Luang Prabang, Laos, as a turning point in their journey and a leading factor in their decision to focus on Lao food when they returned to Minnesota.
That focus was also a driving factor in their decision to go mobile rather than brick-and-mortar, says Boualaphanh. Flexibility did, too. On wheels, they’re able to continue their pop-ups and cultivate relationships like the one they’ve built with BlackStack.
That relationship goes much deeper than a $10 pint-and-wings double-up. It’s blossomed to the point where BlackStack brewed a beer inspired by Soul Lao, and IPA called Soul Lao’d. It’s made with lemongrass, lime leaves, and chilis. The flavors are bold and well-balanced; the drink ends with a spicy kick, but it’s much more “Ooh” than “Aaaaah!”
“It took conversations like this!” says Phothisanh when I asked about how that relationship evolved. A mutual focus on quality ingredients and a commitment to avoid taking shortcuts, he says, made them an easy match.
“Don’t think about trying to make it stretch for the dollar,” he says. “That’s our perspective, and BlackStack moves just like that. We fed off each other’s energy.”
The Soul Lao team will be busy at BlackStack over the next couple of weeks. In addition to their Wing Wednesday efforts, they’re part of an all-star cast assembling a menu for the NCAA men’s basketball championship April 8. More information can be found on the event’s Facebook page.
Five days later, Soul Lao will be teaming up with the crew from Killa Crawfish for a Lao New Year celebration. More information about this event can also be found via Facebook. You can keep up with Soul Lao via their website.
Minor clean-up edits were made shortly after this article’s publication.