The 11 Best New Independent Restaurants
James Beard semi-finalist Jeff Chanchaleune had been cooking Japanese food for 20 years, most recently at Gun Izakaya and Gorō Ramen in Oklahoma City when COVID hit. As the fate of these restaurants and others under parent company 84 Hospitality fell into limbo, Chanchaleune felt driven to create a restaurant that honored his Lao heritage.
From the start, the leader faced an uphill battle. The pandemic was still hampering restaurant foot traffic, and at the same time, Chanchaleune was introducing Oklahoma City to new cuisine.
“I already had a good follow-up with the opening of Gorō Ramen and then the appointment of James Beard. I thought I had the confidence of Oklahoma City to finally get back to my roots,” he said. “The challenge has simply been to educate the community about what Lao food is.”
His work came to fruition last fall when Ma Der Lao Kitchen debuted in OKC’s Plaza District. In many ways, the restaurant is a tribute to his family gatherings, where the phrase “ma der” (roughly translated as “come and eat”) is frequently used. The restaurant plays ’90s hip-hop that Chanchaleune grew up listening to, and he describes the overall vibe as “fun, cozy and energetic.”
In terms of cuisine, Laos has long been overshadowed by its western neighbor (Thailand), as many iconic dishes, such as papaya salad, have been mistaken for Thai cuisine. To that end, Chanchaleune makes it a point to keep Ma Der’s menu as close to the source material as possible.
“People always ask me, ‘Is this authentic or did you make it?’ This menu is pretty much authentic. I just tweaked a bunch of recipes, made them more consistent,” he says. “We do monthly pop-ups where I can be more creative with this food and elevate it.”
As an introduction to Lao cuisine, the chef recommends guests try Nam Khao, a crispy rice salad with pork sausage, ground chilli, lime, peanuts and mint mix, cilantro and green onions.
“I didn’t want their first experience to be watered down because Lao food is shameless,” says Chanchaleune. “It’s like a punch in the face, like that’s what you get.”
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