The Oakland Cocktail Week: All Good In the Neighborhoods series spotlights five Oakland bartenders, their bars, and the neighborhoods they’ve rooted in.
To Saap Avenue owner Thomas Manyvong, opening the Laotian restaurant and cocktail bar on Piedmont Avenue symbolizes more than just a way to make a living. It’s rooted in his family’s struggles and dreams as Laotian refugees and wanting to build a sense of community that crosses neighborhoods and borders.
So tell us about Saap Avenue?
So the whole idea about Saap Avenue is that we wanted to express the Lao community to the Bay Area or to the world and to be an establishment that could offer somewhat of a connection to the world of Laos. We’re doing what I know best by providing a restaurant to the community. So that way with the community and having a Lao restaurant, and having many customers who are new to Laos food, it kind of helps give them [an idea of Laotian] life.
Once they eat our food, they always wonder like, this is similar to Thai food, this is similar to Cambodian food, or this is similar to Myanmar food or in some ways Vietnamese food. And I tell them Laos is located in Southeast Asia, and those countries that you mentioned are all neighboring countries. So we would have similar recipes or similar ingredients. But [Lao food is] more of a comfort food. It can be more of a hands on food. And the flavors are more intense, in a way. They're more on the salty side of what I'd say. But there's so many different regions in Laos that have their own characteristics and their own foods. Depends on what herbs that are growing in those regions. So our food is mainly from the Vientian region, which is like the capital of Laos. And also we have some Thai dishes, like from Chiang Mai or from the Ihsan area. The reason why we have a lot of Thai dishes is because when we first opened Saap Avenue, we were also part of Chai Thai noodles, which is also located here in Oakland and one in Hayward.
My father, who was a Thai chef, my mother was a Lao chef happened to infuse both of those different backgrounds of food, and we made like somewhat of a Lao-Thai restaurant. But just like I said, there are a lot of people who don't know about [Laos]. So maybe Lao restaurants would open under the disguise of a Thai restaurant just for marketing purposes.
Like when you go on the internet or Google, they would type in Thai restaurant, but not knowing that they're eating some of Lao dishes. So for Saap Avenue we're labeled a Laotian restaurant. It's good to express that to the community. And that's the reason why we opened Saap Avenue.
And can you tell us a little bit more about the Laotian community in Oakland?
My mother, she's a Vietnam War refugee. So she immigrated here from Laos during the Vietnam War. So a lot of them were just fleeing the country from danger and were trying to seek asylum, you know. Just trying to find a safer place. So what they did was they crossed the river to Thailand, and many of them they were shot on the spot, because they were trespassing on the Thai border. So, you know, it's just a story like you probably hear this a lot from the Southeast Asian community especially from Laos and Vietnam and Cambodia as well, when they had the Khmer Rouge. So from Laos, a lot of them fled from the war in Vietnam and they ended up throughout the whole United States.
Some of them were sponsored by Mormon families. We were sponsored from a Christian family. So there was a lot of sponsorship going on back in the early 80s, or late 70s. So my mother, she was sponsored by the Mormon [community]. I'm not sure what state but we just happened to end up here in Oakland.
So we ended up here in Oakland, California with a bunch of Lao refugee. You probably hear a lot of stories again, it's like when you’re totally new in a new country,. They don't speak the language. Everything is new, you know, everything is like so modern today, you know, that they're coming from Laos, which is like a torn up country at the time. You know, the US dropped a large amount of bombs in Laos. Happened to be the most bombed country in US warfare history.
So still to this day, there are bombs like UODs or explosive ordnances still laying around in the soil of Laos. When President Obama was in office, he actually donated, at least $80 million to the efforts of getting those bombs removed. And he was the first president to ever visit Laos. So which was really cool.
So the Lao community here is just like I said, we're not as big as other Asian [communities] like the Chinese or Vietnamese. We're still a small community here. So to have a Lao restaurant—to have an establishment to represent the Lao community—I think that's something big.
So why did you choose to put Saap Avenue here on Piedmont Avenue?
So the reason why I wanted to open a restaurant of Piedmont Avenue is — it's somewhat sentimental to me—because my father is buried up the street here in [Mountain View] cemetery. He was the one that was behind opening Chai Thai Noodles in Oakland back in 2008. So to carry on his legacy, I wanted to do something special.
I was born and raised in Oakland. And it's tough, you know, we're like, somewhat at a disadvantage. We don't have what other kids from other more wealthy cities would have. So, like, our education system is not the best, and there's always a budget issue, especially when I was in school. And we didn't really have a quality education system, but I still managed to graduate high school. First in the family to graduate college, the first in the family to commit myself to the US military—I did five years. So I wanted to somewhat pay back to the country that gave my mom and dad hope, which is why I'm here today.
So Piedmont—any Oakland kid, knows, "Oh, man from Piedmont? Man you guys are moving up in this world" type of thing, right? I mean, Piedmont is a nice community. I mean, this is where like, million dollar houses are located. I grew up in the so called Murder Dubs in the 20s, where there are a bunch of like Section Eight houses and drug houses and all that stuff. People just walking around the street were hooked on some type of drugs, you know.
So to have Saap Avenue here on Piedmont, it means more than just what I grew up from, it means that I get to see or do things in a bigger picture. It's like, if we could expose [people to] the Lao community by having a Lao restaurant in this community, where most of these people would be afraid to even step into that type of area where I grew up from, maybe having this restaurant will let them know, hey, there's a light in those areas, you know?
There's, hope and there are people out there that do need help. By having a restaurant like this, it shows that there's good in us, you know? Not all of us are bad. Some things, they might be stereotypical stuff now, I mean, I don't blame them. But most of the people here are really, really, really open. They're open to the food or they're open to the vision that I'm going for. So I want to give them something nice.
So what is your theme and vision for Saap Avenue?
My theme or vision is, is to display exotic Laotian food in a way that is enjoyable, and to also bring [it into my] passion for cocktails. So that's why we have a really good cocktail program here. And to not only put Laotian food in like a culinary aspect, but also to put Laotian food in a liquid form in terms of cocktails. So for Oakland Cocktail Week, it gives us an opportunity to display that to the community. And hopefully, you will get a good result from that.
Alright, last question, What's your favorite part about Oakland?
Man growing up in Oakland, in the 80s 90s, early 2000s—and we’re finishing up this decade! The beauty of it is just seeing it change in a positive note. You know Oakland has been for many years been plagued with crime. You know, my father was murdered in Oakland back in 2009. So it's like, crime has always been something that I hate. It's like, because it means something to me, because I lost my loved one because of crime.
And I don't let that put me down. I don't hate over that. I just wanted to see it grow in a better direction. I just think offering a restaurant gathers community together. Because food brings everyone together. I mean, every time when I work here, I'll see people smile, people laugh. We have different people of color. It's a very diverse group of people. We all get along in this room. And even though it's a small scale, we just hope that in the future there would be as many people like me, that will have the same idea—that would do the same thing.
And the more small scale [spaces] we open the higher the volume, and that would impact Oakland dramatically. So we know Oakland is always going to be a beautiful city. It's always going to be a city of activists and free speech—doing what’s best for humans, you know? So I'm very proud to be from Oakland. And nothing's going to take that away from me.
Check out Saap Avenue during Oakland Cocktail Week September 20-29, 2019. Learn more about Oakland Cocktail Week.