Sort-of Secret: Lao Thai, a family-owned restaurant that all started with a high school project
The sort-of secret: Lao Thai, a restaurant at the corner of Queen and Gladstone serving chef Lits Kong’s take on homestyle Lao cuisine
You may have heard of it if: You’re from Winnipeg, where the original location was, or you live in the condo above the Toronto restaurant
But you probably haven’t tried it because: It’s just off Queen, sandwiched between an RBC and a GNC
Earlier this year during a family trip to Laos, Lits Kong had an epiphany. Despite the fact that her Canadian-born children couldn’t speak Lao, when it came time to eat, they had some strong opinions. “They told me, ‘Mom, your cooking is just as good as this, or even better!’ And to me that was a huge compliment. There was no culture shock for them—that’s how you know my food is pretty damned authentic.”
Kong is the chef and owner of Lao Thai, a small restaurant on the northwest corner of Queen and Gladstone, where she draws on a lifetime of experience cooking homestyle Lao cuisine. “I knew how to make the best sticky rice at just six years old,” says Kong, who was born in Northern Thailand but grew up in Winnipeg, where her family immigrated to in the ’80s. By the age of thirteen, she was cooking all of the family meals, preparing Lao staples like laab and papaya salad.
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In Grade 10, while paying her way through figure skating and dance lessons by working part-time as a seamstress, Kong wrote a business plan as part of a school assignment. It ended up winning her family a government grant to open a tailor shop. That business morphed into a restaurant called Lao Thai, which gained a cult following in Winnipeg.
“When we first opened, we asked our customers, ‘Do you want city food or country food?’ They all wanted country food,” says Kong’s mother, Khamlaa Boonthajit, who based the restaurant’s original menu on the food she grew up eating in Thanoon, the rural village in northwest Laos where she was born, and Luang Prabang. Kong, who also manages to work full-time as a mortgage agent, opened the Toronto location in 2018. Her mom closed the doors of the Winnipeg restaurant in 2020.
It’s all in the details at Lao Thai. The salad rolls are so delicious on their own—veggies and perfectly cooked shrimp peeking through tender rice wrappers—that I forgot to dip them in the fish sauce they come with. And the fried crab dumplings are a textural delight: crispy on the outside, sweet and creamy crustacean on the inside.
“Everything we make here is made by hand and in-house, from our chili oils to our sauces—even the cured pork that’s inside the nam kao. And our produce is brought in on a daily basis,” says Kong. The quality of the food shines even brighter as we move toward the more explicitly Lao side of the menu. That nam kao is an absolutely addictive salad of caramelized rice, perfectly crispy like the bottom of a paella and animated with tangy fermented pork sausage. The casing of the Lao sausages snaps satisfyingly when bitten, yielding succulent, herbaceous, porky goodness.
The star of the show, however, may be Kong’s maternal great-grandfather’s souk gai soup (ຊຸບໄກ່). There are entire online forums filled with Winnipegers and Torontonians desperately trying to recreate the recipe at home, often erroneously referring to it as sua gai (ຊົ້ວໄກ່), which Boonthajit says is a different soup prepared with charred aromatics.
“When I was a child, my father and mother would make souk gai for me when I didn’t feel well. Everything in it was fresh—fresh garlic, fresh ginger. Not long after eating a bowl of it, I would feel better,” Boonthajit says. “When I came to Canada, nobody cooked like that.”
I vividly remember my first bowl of souk gai. Beneath the foliage of cilantro and green onion was a pristine chicken broth, the first sip of which didn’t just taste good: there was citrus electricity, a blast of ginger and a beam of fresh chili heat. It was like drinking sunlight.
I had requested spice level two, on a scale of three, and I was on the verge of losing consciousness—I love spicy food but I was just barely hanging on. “Our spice is different,” Kong told me proudly after she noticed that I was basically having an out-of-body experience after my first few spoonfuls. And it is different: unlike spicy foods that line the tongue and throat with capsaicin, the souk gai expanded my understanding of what it means for something to be spicy, recruiting powerful aromatics like fresh ginger, lemongrass and garlic to create a more three-dimensional sensation I didn’t just taste but felt with my entire face. It altered my brain chemistry from front to back: equal parts nourishment and spiritual exfoliation. (Lits recommends anyone not used to this spice to start with level one.)
I get a similar feeling standing inside Lao Thai and talking to Kong and Boonthajit, who radiate energy and have a vested interest in their community. The two of them built the entire restaurant—drywall, tiling and carpentry included—without the help of contractors and turned it into an inviting home. I can think of few places I’d rather be as the weather gets colder and the soup cravings intensify.