Thip Athakhanh, Eater Atlanta’s 2018 chef of the year, didn’t set out to open a restaurant or to become a chef. She made the leap from home cook to professional chef last February when Athakhanh and husband Vanh Sengaphone opened Laotian restaurant Snackboxe Bistro at the Super H Mart complex in Doraville. Snackboxe became a breakout hit, due in large part to the heart and soul of the restaurant’s food — Athakhanh.
Born in Savannakhet in western Laos near the capital of Vientiane, Athakhanh remembers nothing of the country. Prior to 1975, Laos was ruled by a constitutional monarchy. Laos became a communist nation under the Pathet Lao movement, supported by the Soviet Union, following the end of the Vietnam war and the country’s own civil war. After living in refugee camps, Athakhanh’s family immigrated to the United States when she was just two years old. The family first lived in Kansas, but moved frequently throughout her childhood so her father could find work.
Once in the U.S., Athakhanh says the family was very poor. She recalls the Lao community surrounding them with love, kindness, and, most of all, with food.
“The hospitality shown to us by the Lao community during that period of time was incredible. Even though I was very little, it’s something I still remember and am thankful for.”
Athakhanh grew up surrounded by eight aunts, all of whom were constantly cooking. She observed them, read books, and watched cooking shows with chefs like Rachel Ray. Being the oldest child, Athakhanh soon found herself cooking for her father and two younger siblings. This included learning to create a Laos staple — sticky rice — by age eight.
In 2016, the course of Athakhanh’s life changed during a trip to Laos for her honeymoon. It was the first time she had returned “home” since immigrating to the U.S. as a small child.
“That trip was a transformation. This was home, and I felt deeply connected to everything and everyone in Laos,” Athakhanh explains. “Everything I ate there and everything I experienced in Laos, I felt alive. The country was speaking to me. I knew I needed to bring the food and these experiences back to the U.S.”
After spending 15 years as a planning manager for a solar company, Athakhanh was laid off. She and Sengaphone saw this as an opportunity to fulfill his dream of opening a restaurant. The couple took their savings and poured their money and energy into opening Snackboxe Bistro. Sengaphone built most of the restaurant himself, with the help of family and friends.
Laos is sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam. Feeling Lao food is somewhat unfamiliar and underrepresented in Atlanta, the couple considered the name of the restaurant carefully. Athakhanh and Sengaphone landed on Snackboxe Bistro simply to attract diners crawling along the Buford Highway corridor and its adjacent streets.
“We didn’t want people to know right away it was a Laotian restaurant,” Athakhanh says. “I want people to remember our food first. ‘Snack’ is named for the snack-type food paired with sticky rice in Laos and ‘boxe’ refers to how many Lao people pack their lunches before heading to work.”
Athakhanh describes Lao food as “funky, aromatic, and herbaceous.” She says she doesn’t hold back those flavors at Snackboxe, but leans into them with ingredients like the fermented anchovies or fish sauce.
Owning a restaurant was always her husband’s dream. Athakhanh initially planned to only help get the restaurant off the ground and lock in recipes. She was content hosting family and friends for meals at their home and returning to corporate life. A few weeks after the opening, Athakhanh realized she loved being in the kitchen at Snackboxe.
“My husband is my greatest supporter and pushes me because he knows how much I love to cook Lao food for people here. It’s heartwarming to see the Lao community and so many people from other cultures enjoying our food together.”
The popularity of the mok pa, a traditional Lao dish of fermented steamed fish, took Athakhanh by surprise.
“It’s not uncommon for us to sell 40 orders of mok a day. Since it’s so popular, I’m beginning to experiment, introducing shrimp and oxtail into the dish.”
Athakhanh feels being close to Buford Highway helps Snackboxe thrive and encourages people to explore the menu beyond familiar flavors. She also credits Atlanta’s Lao community for the tremendous support the restaurant enjoys.
A quote from the late Anthony Bourdain along the back wall of the restaurant reads, “Laos is the kind of place that can easily capture your heart and not let you go.” For Athakhanh, those words are an absolute truth, connecting her to Laos in Atlanta through Snackboxe Bistro.
In April, Athakhanh returns to Laos to recharge and learn more about the country where she was born. She plans to add new dishes inspired by her trip to the menu at Snackboxe later this spring.
Athakhanh is in the running to compete on Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” and is waiting to hear from the show’s producers if she’s made the cut. Athakhanh is keeping mum on the strategy she’ll employ to try and beat Flay if she makes the show, who will compete against Athakhanh by cooking an iconic Lao dish of her choosing.
Read about Eater Atlanta’s 2018 restaurant of the year, Tiny Lou’s.