Hanumanh finally opened for dinner in Shaw last night, opening the door for mother-and-son chefs Seng Luangrath and Bobby Pradachith to proudly plant a Lao flag in one of D.C.’s strongest dining neighborhoods.
The name refers to a monkey deity that shows up in Hindu and Buddhist texts, which explains the wall-to-wall murals showing cartoon monkeys preparing dishes with a mortar and pestle and a traditional Lao pot. The character is known for both courage and mischief, traits that Pradachith says refer to his mother, a Lao refugee who sparked the cuisine’s emergence in D.C. when she introduced a secret Lao menu at Bangkok Golden, the family’s Thai restaurant in Falls Church.
The intensely pungent, chile-packed dishes proved so popular that the family changed the name of the restaurant to Padaek, the word for Laos’s potent fish sauce, and subsequently opened two more Lao venues. Thip Khao opened in 2014, becoming an essential stop in Columbia Heights and earning Luangrath a local Eater Award for Chef of the Year. The family got the opportunity to open Sen Khao, a noodle stall in Tysons Galleria, last winter, delaying the highly anticipated opening of Hanumanh.
The new restaurant, Pradachith says, has a “bar-forward” approach. The food mainly consists of small plates that work well as snacks for drinkers and give the owners a chance to differentiate the place from their other businesses. In contrast to Thip Khao, Hanumanh will be more seasonally driven with a menu that rotates frequently.
For example, Hanumanh serves sakoo yadsai, a tapioca dumpling filled with a palm sugar caramel that integrates ground pork, peanuts, and salted radish.
“We don’t season the tapioca, so it’s bland, but once you get to the center, it’s just full of flavor,” Pradachith says. “It’s sweet, sour, funky, crunchy.”
Another dish on the early menu is khao jee, or milk bread served with egg yolk cured in maggi sauce and chicken skin. Som kaw muu, or sour pork jowl served with toasted rice and and charred mushrooms, speaks the importance of using every cut of the animal in Lao cooking.
Naem khao kob, a salad of puffed rice, tamarind sauce, and herbs, presents a lighter option.
Some items, like a red crab curry with lychee and crispy banana blossoms, started out as specials at Thip Khao.
The Hanumanh owners tapped barmini alum Al Thompson to be the bar director overseeing cocktails, beers, and ciders. Pradachith says Thompson may find creative uses for Lao-Lao, a traditional rice whiskey. Beerlao is available, too, naturally.
Although the wooden bar is the centerpiece of the restaurant, Pradachith says the idea behind the restaurant was to be welcoming to kids and non-drinkers, too. So there will be plenty of zero-proof cocktails as well as several tisanes, herbal teas that will pull flavor out of herb stems, ginger peel, and other vegetable scraps. A lowered section of the bar is ideal seating for people in wheelchairs.
An outdoor area in back is full of picnic tables and other colorful metal seating reminiscent of the plastic furniture found on the streets of Laos. Inside, exposed brick walls, and woven basket lights are subtle nods to the Southeast Asian country’s alleyways.
The restaurant owners enlisted artist Henley Bounkhong, whom Pradachith found on Instagram, to create the show-stopping murals.
Raising the profile of Lao food is so important to Pradachith and his family because they want to show other Lao-Americans that their culture can be accepted. He says countless Lao immigrants turn to the restaurant business to make a living, but they consider cooking their own food to be too risky, so they open Peruvian chicken places, Thai places, Sushi places, or Thai places that serve sushi.
“This just continues the Lao food movement and shows the Lao Americans that, ‘Hey, we’re doing fine,’ and don’t be afraid to express yourself,” Pradachith says.