Is Charlotte ready for a restaurant featuring Laotian food? That’s the question that Roger Kongkham and his brother Robert asked themselves when they opened Hibiscus across Woodlawn Road from Park Road Shopping Center in 2016.
“My family started Thai Taste in Dilworth,” Roger Kongkham says. “They are from Thailand and also from Laos. My mom was born in Laos.” Back then, in 1988, Thai flavors were just starting to gain traction with U.S. diners. Laotian food seemed too risky for a restaurant.
“Lao food is a little more spicy and salty,” Kongkham explains. Less of the sweetness of Thai; “more umami, bolder flavors.”
Even when Hibiscus opened, the brothers held back. But as Robert moved on to another restaurant this spring, Roger finally added a “Lao Street Food” section to Hibiscus’s pan-Asian offerings. Together with an inventive cocktail program (some aficionados call Kongkham one of the city’s most under-rated mixologists), the new menu is attracting a growing stream of customers.
Like spice? Get the larb, a signature dish of Laos. Minced chicken — flavored with mint, lime, onions, chili and roasted rice — is served cold. It comes with lettuce leaves that you can use sort of like tortillas: scoop and munch.
Less interested in zing? Go for the nam khao. It’s a comforting mix of rice, onions, cured pork sausage, peanuts and cilantro, served hot. Like the larb, nam khao arrives with lettuce leaves for scooping.
Whatever your main dish, don’t miss the Lao sausages. I first discovered them at Laotian New Year festivals. They’re small, plump and fatty (in a good way) — popping with flavor. Now, at Hibiscus, I can order them any time of the year.
Tom Hanchett is Historian-in-Residence with the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Reach him at Tom@HistorySouth.org.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; noon-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-midnight Friday; noon-midnight Saturday; and noon-9 p.m. Sunday.
Location: 1600 E. Woodlawn Road, #150
Details: 980-256-4380; www.hibiscus-charlotte.com.