The first time I ate at Song Phang Kong, I was filled with the sort of excitement I had forgotten was possible. New restaurants open practically daily in Seattle, but as rents continue to climb, the existence of a place like Song Phang Kong—a humble four-table spot in the International District that serves huge portions of Laotian and Thai food, all of which cost just $8 a plate—seems unbelievable.
Song Phang Kong is entirely the domain of Beng Rajsombath, a tiny, vibrant woman whose presence fills every corner of the restaurant she opened last November. As soon as you take a seat, she will greet you with a smile, a bottle of water, and a can of Pepsi. "Free drinks for you, my friend," she'll say, handing you a one-sided laminated menu.
From that moment on, Rajsombath is in perpetual motion—pounding papaya salad with a large, wooden mortar and pestle, cheerfully forcing extra helpings of sticky rice on customers, packaging up leftovers (there are always leftovers here), and perhaps leaving the restaurant for a few minutes to buy ingredients from the Viet Wah grocery store across the street. (When she gets her shopping cart stuck in the front door upon her return, you'll be happy to interrupt your meal, jump up, and hold it open for her.)
The menu at Song Phang Kong contains just 13 items, including popular Thai dishes like pad thai, pad see ew, and green and red curries. They are all perfectly fine—cooked to order with fresh vegetables and plenty of spice if you ask for it—but you can find these sorts of dishes at any Thai place in town. What you can't find easily are dishes like green papaya salad, sour pork sausage, and beef jerky from Rajsombath's native Laos, which are the heart and soul of her menu and by far her best offerings.
If you order the tham mak hoong (green papaya salad)—a tall heap of shredded fruit, quartered tomatoes, fresh red chilies, and salty dried shrimps, all softened and slightly bruised by Rajsombath's traditional preparation in a mortar and pestle—be sure to tell her that you'd like it made with fish sauce. Its potent brininess and funk balance out the sweetness of the dish while giving it an uncommon depth of flavor. Rajsombath keeps a bottle of the unfiltered, murky liquid of fermented anchovies at the ready, but she's a bit shy about deploying it unless a customer asks for it.
"Oh, I'm a little afraid," she told me. After cooking in a downtown Thai restaurant for a few years, Rajsombath has come to the unfortunate conclusion that "for many people, it's too much." And while some might find Rajsombath's flavors too strong, those seeking authentic Laotian food are sure to come back again and again for her traditional, unabashedly sour and fiery cooking.
The best dish at Song Phang Kang is sai ua, or pork sausages. They're fat and dense, full of onion and sticky rice, and fragrant with lemongrass, crushed lime leaf, and cilantro. After mixing and stuffing the sausages herself, Rajsombath sets them out for a day, allowing the pork to cure and acquire a distinct, tangy flavor. She serves them pan fried, sliced on the diagonal, and topped with sweet, crispy fried shallots. They taste best eaten with your fingers, with little balls of sticky rice, and dipped for just a split second into a burning sauce of dried red chilies and fresh lime juice.
You'll also want to use your fingers when feasting on sien hang (beef jerky), made from strips of beef that are first marinated in garlic, ginger, fish sauce, and sugar. After soaking, the meat is dried, its flavor concentrating and its texture transforming into something pleasantly chewy. Rajsombath flash fries the jerky and serves it with fresh lime wedges and a dipping sauce made from fish sauce and diced chilies—a perfect contrast to the jerky's dark, intense beefiness.
"I want to add more Lao dishes," Rajsombath told me, "but right now, no time, too hard." She shows me packages of pork skin waiting in her freezer, which she would like to use to make nam khao, a salad of crispy rice balls and sour pork that she used to sell around town but which is labor and time intensive, requiring boiling, shredding, and curing the pork skin.
Rajsombath also hopes to add laab, a minced beef salad made with tripe and fresh herbs that many consider to be the national dish of Laos. "You can't have Lao restaurant without laab," she said. "I already have beef stomach."
But the dishes will have to wait—for now. Rajsombath said the first three months of business were rough: She had originally priced dishes at $6 and had to pay back friends who had loaned her cash to open her restaurant. But now, she says, business is picking up, and she's able to save some money, little by little.
Rajsombath has been working hard her entire life: She learned to cook working in the market food stalls of her hometown of Xeno, Laos. Bored by family farming, she opted to cook so she could make money to take cabs and watch Bollywood movies in the nearby city of Savannakhet. "I was a naughty girl," she told me, smiling mischievously.
Later, after fleeing Laos in 1977, Rajsombath and her children ended up in the Ubon refugee camp in Thailand. There, she sold noodles to support her family before coming to the United States in 1979.
While working at her restaurant every day is clearly exhausting, Rajsombath doesn't seem like she could sit still even if she tried. "I ask the landlord about renting the apartment upstairs," she said, "so I don't have to ride the bus; I just come downstairs and work."
When Rajsombath does allow herself a moment to sit down and rest, she's more than willing to let her customers pitch in and do some work. When a young man pulled out a card to pay for his pad thai, she directed him to the front counter. Rajsombath only accepted cash up until a few weeks ago, but she gave in to customers who insisted she take plastic.
"I have machine now, but I don't know how to use," she told him. "So you do it yourself. Eight dollars." When he resisted, she insisted, shooing him toward the front, saying, "It's your restaurant, too!"
Rajsombath turned to me and shrugged her shoulders. "No customers," she said, smiling, "no restaurant."