In the three years since Snackboxe Bistro has been open in Doraville, chef Thip Athakhanh has successfully thrust Laotian food into the spotlight in Atlanta. Now, after an exhausting year of heartache and loss brought on by the pandemic, Athakhanh is looking forward to the future and the opening of a Duluth location in September focused on Lao barbecue.
Athakhanh was building upon the breakout success of Snackboxe Bistro with the opening of a stall at Battery Atlanta food hall Ph’east when the health crisis struck last March. Like many restaurant owners, Athakhanh and husband and partner Vanh Sengaphone closed the dining room at the Doraville location, transitioned the entire operation to takeout, and closed the food stall at the Battery.
“2020 was definitely a big setback for us, just so much loss and filled with a lot of pain,” Athakhanh says of a year she still feels traumatized by personally and professionally. “I’m really humbled that our customers have been able to help us keep our doors open, because we weren’t really sure how we would make it.”
Athakhanh says opening a second, full-service location wasn’t planned, but happened by chance.
Throughout the pandemic, Athakhanh often found herself cooking at home after work, then sharing her food with neighbors and friends as a way to stay connected. This led to the formation of a supper club in February and creating snacks like pepper and banana chips. The chips, she says, became popular among patrons of the supper club. She then began selling the chips at Snackboxe Bistro. Athakhanh couldn’t keep the chips in stock and needed more space to produce bigger batches to sell at the restaurant and to grow her burgeoning wholesale business.
“We landed contracts with a couple of wholesale resellers in Atlanta and needed to look for manufacturing space with an existing kitchen,” says Athakhanh of taking over the former Prime Bar and Lounge space just off of Pleasant Hill Road. “I absolutely love Duluth and this location. But because of the patio, I said, ‘No, we need to do a restaurant as well.’”
Sharing kitchen space between the wholesale business and the restaurant, she says, “kills two birds with one stone.”
The decor for Snackboxe Bistro in Duluth will resemble the Lao-French design aesthetic found in the city of Luang Prabang (the heart of Luang Prabang province in northern Laos, and Sengaphone’s favorite city). In addition to a full bar and the regular menu, which includes laap, noodle soup khao piek sen, Laotian sausage, and papaya salad, the second location allows Athakhanh to expand the menu, offering new dishes inspired by the city of Pakse (the capital of Champasak province in southern Laos, and Athakhanh’s favorite city). But the main attraction in Duluth, she says, will be the Lao barbecue.
A street food staple found in markets throughout Laos, the grilled meats are distinguished by an herbaceous and aromatic caramelization infused with lemongrass, garlic, and zippy hints of citrus. Look for other Lao street snacks exclusive to Duluth, too, such as fried chicken feet, fried chicken livers, and fried chicken gizzards.
“We really want to transport you to Laos here in Duluth. I think we will do that, as it’s located on the corner and the patio is off to the side and very private,” says Athakhanh. “We’re planting banana trees and going to add a community garden where we will grow herbs and chiles. Customers will be welcome to pick things themselves to take home.”
Prior to the opening in September, she and Sengaphone plan to hold a Buddhist blessing ceremony for the new Snackboxe Bistro toward the end of August. It will be open to the public. The traditional ceremony sees nine monks (a significant number) walking around the building while chanting and offering up prayers and spraying the restaurant with holy water. The ceremony will be followed by a community potluck brunch.
“After the year we’ve all just had, I think this ceremony is needed to clear away the negative energy and to start fresh,” she says. “I feel like when you make an offering, you’re offering it to the spirits to watch over us. This restaurant is a time for us to change direction and take a different approach and to also go harder into our own food roots.”
1960 Day Drive NW, Duluth. snackboxebistro.com.