Vientiane Café on 47th and Baltimore Avenue has been satisfying Penn students’ BYO and asian noodle needs for 13 years. But they’ve been serving a different kind of community long before that.
In the corner of the small restaurant, decorated with elephant tapestries and potted bamboo plants, Phoxay Sidara sits reading a book, a cup of tea on the table in front of him. His daughter, Sunny Phanthavong, commands the counter. She wears a black t–shirt and her ombréd hair is tied up with a bun. She is constantly busy running the restaurant, but this slow afternoon she can make time to talk. She likes to discuss her family’s history with the customers who are interested; she is worried it will get lost.
Sunny is the first generation in her family to have lived in West Philly all her life. Her parents were refugees from the communist regime in Laos, and so when her mom, Daovy Phanthavong, came to Philadelphia, she brought with her knowledge of Lao food and culture. After dabbling in a string of odd jobs, Daovy decided she would retire to take care of Sunny and her sister, Manorak (or Many). At her home at 45th and Sansom Streets, she began to cook.
She would invite friends over who, after tasting her creations, would then bring their friends. By word of mouth, Daovy and her daughters began to use their backyard to serve traditional Lao–Thai food to the immigrant neighborhood.
The backyard was dubbed the “Blue Tent.” “My dad built a tent over the backyard and we fenced it up with wooden sheets all around so people wouldn’t see,” says Sunny. The whole family pitched in. At 13 years old, she became the front of the house, the wait staff, the dishwasher, the cook and everything in between. Running around under the tent with Sunny and her sister were their cats, dogs and one chicken. She explains, “He didn’t have a name, we just called him Chicken.”
The regulars would warn the newbies that they needed to know exactly what they wanted before sneaking in. They cooked the food to order, offering Pad Thai, Curry and Basil Sauce with a choice of either tofu or chicken. Since meat is expensive, Lao food is traditionally based around vegetables or tofu. “Not to scare you off,” says Sunny, “but the main protein back in Laos was bugs. They were cheaper.”
She explains that although the food is similar, there is an important distinction between Thai and Lao cuisine. When deciding which culture you are tasting, the proof is in the sticky rice. While Thai people eat white Jasmine rice, Laotians make rice by steaming it in a basket covered by bamboo. The result is smaller grains with a naturally sweet flavor that can be rolled into balls with only a spoon. The spices are also different. “We use more bitter notes, and more chili pepper,” says Sunny.
Aside from the authentic food, the Blue Tent was convenient. The immigrants all used to be farm workers, and so that’s what they did when they came to Pennsylvania. They farmed all day long and so when they came home, they felt no need to leave the neighborhood. The Blue Tent became a place for refugees to hang out with friends and family of similar backgrounds and enjoy a taste of home.
Not surprisingly, Penn and Drexel students caught word of this mysterious backyard speakeasy. Sunny remembers, “at first when the college students started showing up I thought it was cool. I was used to being around my Lao and Cambodian neighbors and it was neat to be intro- duced to new people.” Except, along with their business, the students brought too much attention. One fateful night, a cop went to write up a crowd of cars parked in front of the Phanthavong house, and noticed there was something going on in the backyard. He called the station to ask if there was a licensed business on the street. There wasn’t. “While they didn’t do anything harmful to my family, there was a serious police shut down that night,” says Sunny.
The community was just as devastated as the Phanthavongs. “People would knock on our door everyday, begging for our food. Sometimes we let them in, saying ‘just pretend you’re a family guest.’” They did that for a couple months, sitting people in their living room, until acknowledging this set up was completely unsustainable. With the help of the neighborhood to get back on their feet, they partnered with a place on Drexel’s campus called Buffalo Bills, and took over the restaurant while the owner ran the bar. In 2003, they opened Vientiane Café. They named the restaurant after the capital of Laos to honor their homeland.
Sunny says, “I still get people that come in that tell me ‘I remember those good ol’ days sitting outside in the summer time, with that chicken running around, when this plate of food used to be only $3.’” She also reminisces on the past. “I miss being laid back because now it’s more serious. We used to do it just for fun.”
Vientiane’s story is an illustration of how business pressures can change the native culture of West Philadelphia. For example The Twisters, a notorious Philly bike gang, were Blue Tarp regulars. They would roll in on their bikes to chill and drink beer all night. One Twister, nicknamed Shorty, is still a customer. Shorty got into a bad bike accident years ago, and Daovy’s soup cured him. “Now Shorty comes in here and screams, ‘Mom! I want my bowl of soup!’ And then my mom brings it out to him. He’s become like my big brother.” However, even though Shorty has stuck with Vientiane through the changes, for his buddies the established restaurant is too pricey (although each dish is well under $9), and too fancy compared to their old underground habitat.
The Lao, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Thai community has also greatly diminished. Because of widespread violence, many of them moved away when they could. She looks into my eyes fiercely. “Near the Blue Tent I’ve seen people get shot. I’ve seen drugs everywhere.” And so when I asked her what she thinks about Penn students changing West Philadelphia’s landscape, and contributing to the shutdown of the Blue Tarp, she appreciates it. “When I drive down by there now I see all these new houses and clean streets. And although I didn’t get to see that when I lived there, it’s only positive.”
For all the regrets of the speakeasy raid, Sunny looks on the bright side. She is grateful for the Baltimore Dollar Stroll (a biannual event with $1 deals) for being the closest thing to remind her of the days they used to serve food outside under the tent. She’s also grateful for the Basil Sauce: Vientiane’s signature dish.
“It’s been in our recipe since the backyard days,” she says, as she carries out a plate of chicken bathed in an orange sauce. Pepper, carrots, broccoli and leeks gently surround the meat (Sunny tells me all of their veggies are fresh from local markets). The largest basil leaf I’ve ever seen rests on top.
For the people who have been coming since the beginning, the Basil Sauce conjures feelings of nostalgia and tradition. The craziest validation of this was when a man once called Sunny over from a table to say that the sauce he was eating tasted too familiar. The man ended up being a Drexel grad who ate at the Blue Tent as a student. He went on to tell her that the flavors that night inspired him to open an Asian food truck upon graduation.
The sauce is warm, and tastes sweet at first bite. Hints of garlic, chili peppers, and paprika meld together, creating a spicy aftertaste. Without having been to the speakeasy, the meal does not stir up déja vu. However, sitting in the family-run restaurant trying a recipe they are so proud of, I knew I had stumbled upon a hidden, lao-flavored nugget of local history.