A few years ago, when he was holding one-off events like Pho on the Farm, Alex Hanesakda says his Lao-fusion food business, SapSap, was better known as “that random pop-up company.” “People didn’t really know what Lao food was,” he explains. Aside from perhaps a dish or two on a Thai restaurant menu, Lao cuisine didn’t garner much attention.
Hanesakda, a first-generation Lao-American who grew up in Burlington, is working to change that. In late spring, he opened a permanent home for the business in Mount Pleasant (2343 Mead St.), where he started offering carryout with plans to open for dine-in service. SapSap is a labor of love for the self-trained chef, who calls his cooking a hybrid of his upbringing (“cooking with my parents and my aunties and uncles”) and living in Wisconsin.
In 2010, Hanesakda first offered “Mamma’s” egg rolls (based on his mother’s recipe) at Asian Fest. Six years later, while working in East Troy butcher shop Hometown Sausage Kitchen, he debuted a product line under the name SapSap – which means delicious delicious in Lao. His first product was a beef snack stick using Lao ingredients such as makrut lime leaves and bhut jolokia (ghost peppers).
That grew to include Lao sausage (seasoned with lemongrass, makrut lime and bird’s eye chile) and a couple of sauces. Beyond the product line, he expanded to doing pho pop-ups on a Burlington farm and Lao BBQ dinners that exposed many diners to new flavors (makrut lime, lemongrass) in BBQ. Alongside skirt steak and ribs were dishes like papaya salad, sticky rice and jeow, a spicy chile sauce. More recently, SapSap popups have periodically been held at Lucky Ginger, the Thai restaurant in the Third Ward.
Hanesakda plans to continue doing those events along with running the SapSap restaurant in Mount Pleasant, which has enabled him to expand the fusion menu to include Isan (Thailand) BBQ chicken with Thai roasted peanut-
cucumber salad, Korean fried chicken wings in vodka batter with honey gochujang sauce, charred skirt steak and, for dessert, fish sauce-salted caramel brownies. Once he secures his liquor license, he’ll also serve his own beer, Thum Phuk Sticky Rice Lager, brewed with sticky rice and Japanese Sorachi Ace hops noted for their lemongrass character.
Hanesakda isn’t the only source of citrusy, sweet-savory Laotian flavors in southeastern Wisconsin. Here are five other places to get a Lao food fix in the MKE area.
$7-$18, 2238 N. FARWELL AVE., 414-763-9081
The year-old Lao-focused counter-service restaurant at Crossroads Collective serves a wonderful chicken larb (traditional minced meat salad), spicy Lao sausage served with sticky rice and jeow som (chile-based sauce), and sweet-pungent papaya salad with tamarind dressing.
2. Sweet Basil
$8-$13, 6509B S. 27TH ST., 414-301-4126
Thai is a big component of this Franklin restaurant’s menu, but Lao street eats (small plates) like grilled steak, ribs and chicken wings served with a jeow bong chile sauce are also a solid draw. You can also order a flight of three jeows to eat with everything here.
3. Sticky Rice
$7.50-$13, 1000 E. LOCUST ST., 414-226-6483
The larb here is very herby and plentiful, and both the Lao beef jerky and sausage are delectably salty, umami-rich appetizers. They run occasional Lao specials, too, such as pork ribs marinated in lemongrass, sugar and oyster sauce.
4. Lucky Ginger
$7-$19, 221 N. WATER ST., 414-269-8699
The Lao sausage is spicy, herby and delicious. Also props to the juicy, well-seasoned lemongrass marinated pork chop with spicy ginger dipping sauce.
$7.50-$19.50, 3422 W. NATIONAL AVE., 414-672-8440
Besides a very good larb (chicken, beef or pork), Vientiane – named for the largest city in Laos – serves an excellent Laotian version of hot pot (called joom seen) with beef, clear noodles and veggies served with a richly seasoned beef broth and peanut sauce.