Lao Food Market: The Last Laotian Restaurant in Wichita
Wichita, Kansas, is not typically regarded as a premier culinary destination. But what you may not know is that this heartland hamlet is home to a fairly large concentration of Laotian immigrants, and at one point, a robust restaurant scene. The community began a few decades ago, when a group of Laotians fled the country's oppressive communist regime, crossed the Mekong River illegally and settled in Kansas, thanks to the generosity of a local business owner who agreed to sponsor them. Years later, while the Laotian community in Wichita is still strong, there is only one Laotian restaurant left — Lao Food Market.
Lao Food Market is more a grocery store than an actual restaurant, but it’s best known throughout the community for its freshly prepared Laotian meals, which are sold in the back. Their no-frills dishes that embody the bright, clean flavors of Laotian cuisine: chicken larb speckled with red chiles and onions, steamed buns stuffed to the brim with roast pork, steamed fish nestled in a bed of cucumbers and fresh herbs, and a refreshing (but spicy) papaya salad.
The market is run by David Sensanith — who immigrated from Laos close to 40 years ago — and his wife. (She’s the head cook.) It was originally opened by his parents, who came to Wichita a few years before Sensanith. “We had no chance at a life in Laos, no freedom there,” he says, referring to the communist government that came to power in the mid 1970s. “America is a freedom country. I feel proud to be here. I’ve learned so much here.”
When Sensanith first took over Lao Food Market, he says the Laotian restaurant scene in Wichita was bustling. But the only customers were the older generations of Laotians. “Lao food is not fancy food, and not a lot of people know about it,” he says, which prevented non-Laotian guests from visiting the restaurants. Even the younger generations of Laotians, he says, “have different tastes. They want Chinese food.” Within the past 10 years, each of the Laotian restaurants has closed, one by one, leaving behind just Lao Food Market — which is only able to survive because it also sells groceries, and doesn't offer formal table service, Sensanith says.
He sees the purpose of his restaurant as twofold: first, to support the Laotian population in Wichita. Aside from the local Laotian temple, Lao Food Market is one of the few gathering places left for the Laotian community. “We try to use our place to keep everyone together, and to be a support for all of the different families,” he says. The second aim is to educate younger generations about what Lao food is all about. “Lao food is amazing, fresh and spicy. We make it ourselves and serve it because we need to teach people about it,” he says. “You don’t want Lao food to disappear.”
Photo by Khe-Yo
Phet Schwader, chef of the Laotian restaurant Khe-Yo in New York, also immigrated to Wichita from Laos, and spent much of his upbringing frequenting Lao Food Market. “It was where people would gather after work,” he says. “After school, my mom would say ‘Let’s go to the grocery store,’ and that’s where the community got together. We became literally best friends with [David’s] parents.” Schwader’s favorite dishes were the homemade pork rinds (“super-crunchy, you could taste all the meat and fat inside of them”) and the kalapao, steamed buns filled with sweet sausage, egg and ground pork. “I have my mom come and bring it when she comes to visit me," he says.
Business for Lao Food Market these days has its ups and downs. “The last few months were very slow, as we still have to rely mostly on support from the older people,” Sensanith says, and as the years go by, that group is increasingly less able and inclined to leave the confines of home. But he and his wife have no plans to stop churning out Laotian food anytime soon. As Sensanith reminds me, “If we close down, that’s it. No more Lao food in Wichita. That’s why we keep doing it.”