California is home to the country’s largest Laotian American population, yet Lao restaurants have never enjoyed the ubiquity that Thai and Vietnamese eateries have. Three Sacramento women aim to change that with the opening of Hiso, an impressive Lao and Thai restaurant that opened this past December in the heart of downtown.
Laisa Yabaki and two friends from her days at John F. Kennedy High School, sisters Annie and Alina Manikhong, had worked in kitchens across the city since their teens. Now in their 20s, they wanted to start a business of their own. “We had a lot of experience and were waiting for a good opportunity to get into the industry,” says Yabaki.
When a space became available downtown, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work making it theirs. “We built the bar ourselves. We painted the ceiling,” says Yabaki, adding that the three knew their way around power tools, having fixed up a house they bought together just three or so years out of high school. “We actually love going to Home Depot. We’re really hands-on and very driven.” The Manikhong sisters, who were born in Laos and run Hiso’s kitchen, grew up eating many of the recipes on the restaurant’s menu. The trio made a decision early on to offer Lao cuisine beside more familiar Thai dishes in order to attract a wider dining audience. “The Thai food is just to get them in the door,” says Yabaki with a laugh. “Once they get here, we recommend all the Lao dishes. One thing I love about our customers is that they’re so openminded. They love the Lao food and they keep coming back for it.”
With good reason. Hiso’s well-executed dishes are full of the spicy, salty, pungent (Yabaki calls it “funky”) flavors that Lao cuisine is known for. While it shares much in common with Thai cuisine, food from Laos tends to make greater use of fermented ingredients, especially padaek, a traditional Lao fish sauce.
Standout dishes at Hiso include mee kati, ground pork in a rich, stew-like sauce served alongside rice noodles and crunchy vegetable and herb condiments; tender, chewy pork ribs accompanied by jeow bong, a Lao chili paste, and traditional sticky rice; and khao piak, a hearty chicken noodle soup that Yabaki says is popular at Saturday morning brunch as a hangover cure.
“A lot of our Laotian customers tell us that our food tastes like their mom’s food, and I love that compliment,” says Yabaki. “That’s exactly the reaction we want.”
524 12th St.;