Jennifer Kim, the esteemed chef/owner behind Passerotto, is off to South Korea for a research and development trip. While Kim, Eater Chicago’s 2018 Chef of the Year, is reconnecting with her roots for two weeks, she’s left her Andersonville restaurant in the care of chef Andy Sisomboune. Sisomboune, who’s worked a popular restaurants like Nico Osteria in Gold Coast, specializes in Laotian-American cuisine.
From Friday to January 20, and again on January 24 to 27, Passerotto will host Sao Song, the pop-up dinner series Sisomboune has run since 2008. The Reader dove into Sisomboune’s story 12 years ago. Ben Fasman, the general manager at Off Color Brewing’s Mousetrap taproom in Lincoln Park, has since joined the operation. He handles the pop-up’s wine and cocktails.
Sisomboune likens his approach to Laotian food to how Kim approaches Korean food. Kim uses an Italian flair in her creative cooking, and Sao Song also has a bit of a Western influence rather than serving 100-percent traditional Laotian food.
Dishes include crunchy chicken wings fried in rice bran oil and marinated overnight with garlic, shallots, bird’s eye chilis, Maggi sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and turmeric. Then there’s a special eggplant dish served with sticky rice. It’s eggplant three ways: roasted and charred; pickled Japanese eggplant; and a Thai eggplant dip that’s like tartare served with smoked trout roe.
Many pop-up chefs only use their pop-up space to heat and serve their food because there’s no room to prep. It’s a challenge. Over at Passerotto, Sisomboune can prep on site and that provides relief from the usual struggles.
“I feel like at every pop-up, we’ve always done different things, and I think with this one we’ll do the things that we’ve done before but it’s going to be tightened up and just better executed,” he said.
Kim said she needed the trip to Seoul and Jeju Island. Over the years, she’s become a vocal advocate for the marginalized, hoping to give overlooked members of Chicago’s restaurant industry better opportunities. She’s spoken up against abuse of women, advocated for more LGBTQ representation, and held small business seminars to promote financial literacy. Most recently, she launched “In Living Color,” a series of pop-ups spotlighting a diverse lineup of chefs, DJs, mixologists, and more.
But doing all of that while running a Michelin Bib Gourmand-winning restaurant has taken a toll. Kim said she’s been consumed by cancel culture. After reaching a breaking point (she said that came while talking with a fellow chef until the early hours), she had an epiphany. She wants to focus 2020 on the positives. As a Korean-American who grew up in the suburbs and cooks Korean food, a flight to South Korea made sense.
“This trip to Korea, somewhere I haven’t been back to since I was 17, is another step in connecting with lost or muddled parts of my identity,” Kim wrote. “To be able to rediscover and fortify while surrounded by a group of people who are also discovering and fortifying their own relationship to themselves and to each other, it seemed like a great opportunity to empower our connections.”
While Kim and members of her restaurant’s staff are traveling, Sisomboune will gain valuable experience at Passerotto. Across the country, thanks to restaurants like Thip Khao in Washington, D.C. and Khao Noodle Shop in Dallas, the hunger for Laotian food has grown. Instagram has really helped spread Laotian food’s popularity in America, Sisomboune said.
The goal is to tap into that surge and open a restaurant in Chicago, a city devoid of a Laotian restaurant. Spicy Thai Lao in suburban Burbank may be the only one in the area. Numbers from the most recent Census in 2010 show there are about 4,800 Laotians in the Chicago area, the 12th-largest population in America.
Sisomboune currently is a line cook at Pacific Standard Time in River North, but his passion remains working toward opening his own restaurant. Sao Song is based on childhood memories, but it’s also a place where Fasman’s cocktails can shine. The chef just has one bit of advice for customers.
“Don’t be afraid to eat with you hands,” Sisombone said. “Lao food is all about eating with your hands, you have to dig in.”
Sao Song pop-up at Passerotto, 5420 N. Clark Street, reservations under Passerotto via Resy; open for dinner 5:30 pm. to 10 p.m. from January 17 to 20 and January 24 to 27; brunch from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday, January 26.