(Note: We're revisiting some of Brian Reinhart's picks for our annual list of Top 100 Dallas Restaurants to see how they're faring in what we hope are the final months of the pandemic.)
Sapp Sapp Lao and Thai Kitchen, a 3-year-old Laotian restaurant in downtown Irving, is for sale after months of battling the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The restaurant is open for now and still serving its acclaimed noodle bowls and fried pork riblets, but it could close quickly when a buyer is found.
Family members behind Sapp Sapp are some of the original Laotian-American restaurateurs in North Texas; their original business, Nalinh Market, has been cooking for over 15 years and is still going strong.
Sapp Sapp opened in summer 2017, and it has appeared on the Observer’s Top 100 Restaurants list every year since. It’s one of the best places in the area to try noodle soups like sukiyaki, kapoon, kow piak and a bowl of pho topped with a whole beef rib. An off-menu marinated rib-eye special drew loyal customers who called to reserve their steaks in advance.
But owner Xay Senephoumy, who works the kitchen with his mother, Boonmie Phennara, says many of their most loyal customers traveled long distances to visit the restaurant, making it especially vulnerable to the pandemic because it couldn’t count on takeout orders from neighbors.
“The majority of our customer base, at least 90% of it, is travel traffic from around the metro, and with COVID, people are being a little extra careful about travel,” Senephoumy says.
Some of his most loyal regulars were martial arts fighters and coaches who train at a gym in Fort Worth, including titleholders in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
“After their fights, they had to make their weights and whatnot, and they’re starving, so they made it a tradition to come and eat here,” Senephoumy explains. “Word spread to the other UFC fighters, so they dropped in when they were in town. I’ve been a fan since the first caveman days of UFC in 1992, before anyone knew they existed. But they’re really humble, so they kinda look at me starstruck. I’m not a star, I’m a freaking cook, right? So they’re giving me the same look that I’m giving them when I feed them.”
The early months of 2020 included Sapp Sapp’s best winter months ever, but the pandemic hit hard. When we last talked to Senephoumy, he said that business was down 90%, and that he hadn’t received any government assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program. He was recently able to secure funding in the PPP’s second round — but, he said, the assistance barely amounted to a thousand dollars.
“I don’t feel bitter towards anybody,” he says now. “I’m kind of mad at the government. We’ve spoken about this before, how none of the little people got the money and all the big people got the money. We were kind of expecting that to help us stay afloat but that didn’t happen. But I don’t have anybody to blame. ... I’m thankful for every minute of it.”
Even though Senephoumy is looking for a buyer for his space, he’s still glad that he got to serve his food for over three years. His loyal regulars have asked about the possibility of a food truck or a new restaurant, but the only thing he wants to plan for now is an extended break from the exhaustion of running a restaurant in a pandemic.
Sapp Sapp, if its days are drawing to a close, will leave a legacy as a restaurant that helped many Irving and Dallas locals learn about Laotian food. In the years since it opened, Dallas’ Lao food scene has been nationally recognized for its importance.
“We have people come in and thank us for opening their minds to our culture, we’ve had people telling us facts they researched, or come in speaking our language,” Senephoumy says. “That’s all I ever wanted. I was using the food as a tool. I wanted to have a bigger impact on the Dallas community, make people more aware of our people and our culture.”
Sapp Sapp Lao and Thai Kitchen, 120 S. Main St., Irving.
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