Redefining Soul Food at Sibley Plaza

October 10, 2023
Sometimes cuisine is about more than flavor.

The food on your plate encompasses hundreds of years of culture and unique heritage. For Eric and Sabrina Boualaphanh, the owners of Soul Lao, their restaurant is the culmination of thousands of miles of globetrotting, an unexpected journey of self-discovery, and a lot of hard work.

What started as a food truck is now becoming a permanent fixture at Sibley Plaza, complete with its own devoted fan base and even a local beer collaboration… but the story doesn’t really start with a food truck. It starts with a dream and a great change. That story is worth telling.

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Reconnecting with Lao Culture

In the mid-2010s, Eric was burned out. He’d struggled with a previous business. Life wasn’t going the way he’d hoped. He was looking for a reason to keep going—so he and Sabrina left Minnesota behind and traveled west, hoping to find a deeper purpose.

But they didn’t find themselves in California, a place forever imagined in American culture as a land of gilded promises. Instead, they found themselves through heritage.

When Eric and Sabrina decided to open a restaurant, they initially thought they would cook Thai food. They traveled to Laos, their ancestral home, to study authentic Thai recipes. What they found instead was the strength and pride of the Lao people, a sense of reconnection with their culture, and a new conviction to carry traditional Lao food back home to Minneapolis.

They may not speak fluent Lao, but cooking Lao food was a way of showing their families that they had always listened to the stories handed down to them. It was a way of honoring the struggles of their families, who were forced to abandon their homeland—Sabrina’s aunt, in fact, only just regained her land in the Lao countryside after fleeing to France decades ago. Soul Lao was a way for Eric and Sabrina to reconnect not only with Laos, but with themselves.

From Food Truck to Local Sensation

Eric was raised by his grandparents, making meatballs by hand in the garage. He grew up on Lao flavors, some of which he was nervous about bringing to an American audience—fermenting and brining are common practices in Lao cuisine—but the launch of Soul Lao, which began as a food truck in 2017, proved to be a huge success.

It was difficult at first. They had to learn the ropes of the restaurant industry, gauge how to price a menu that relied on labor-intensive traditional recipes, navigate tax codes in the various counties and municipalities where they parked their truck, and attract an audience for a relatively unknown style of cuisine.

They felt the tide change when they did VeeCon, a multi-day superconference that hosts iconic and emerging leaders. Eric said that their dishes stood out, and that users on the popular social app Discord were buzzing about the quality of their food.

“They were really gassing us up,” he said, flashing a bright, infectious smile.

It wasn’t long before their food truck was fully-booked, and Eric and Sabrina had to look towards the next logical step in building their business. Soul Lao had been growing consistently for more than 5 years, and it was time for a brick-and-mortar location.

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A Piece of Laos in Sibley Plaza

Soul Lao is set to make a splash at Sibley Plaza. They’re already working on a beer collaboration with Wandering Leaf Brewing next door—a rice lager brewed with toasted coconut and camden leaf (a traditional Lao herb, which Eric described as having an almond-vanilla flavor).

Sabrina is also excited to find ways for the restaurant to serve as an ambassador for Lao culture, such as including authentic Lao artwork and music in a way that remains both local and inclusive. They described traditional Lao gatherings as boisterous, welcoming, and incredibly friendly—think Southern hospitality meets backyard barbecue—and they’re excited to bring that same energy to their new space.

It’s been a lot of work setting up the permanent location at Sibley Plaza, but Eric is grateful that he and Sabrina had help along the way.

“We’re glad we don’t have to go through the growing pains alone,” he said. “Paster Properties has been really helpful with giving us a blueprint and a diagram of what to expect.”

The two have done an amazing job refitting and styling their new space. Make sure to stop by Sibley Plaza for a bite of authentic Lao cuisine—Soul Lao’s permanent location is opening in August 2023.

[Visit Soul Lao’s website]

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