A Taste of Laos: Lon Bounsanga’s New Chapter

SAAP restaurant in downtown Cary offers diners fresh, vibrant flavors inspired by the homeland of its chef and owner.
by Catherine Currin | photography by Forrest Mason

“In every language, we have a word for when something tastes good,” says Lon Bounsanga, owner and chef of SAAP in downtown Cary. “SAAP means delicious or yummy in Laotian — which is, I hope, what people say about the food here!”

Bounsanga moved to Raleigh in 2007 from Philadelphia and helped open Bida Manda in 2012. “Having that start at Bida Manda was such a learning experience in understanding the Triangle,” he says. Bounsanga also worked to help open the critically acclaimed Brewery Bhavana in 2017 serving as the executive chef of both places — but all the while, he was itching to open his own space. He left to open SAAP in May 2023 and still serves as a consultant for Bida Manda.

SAAP opened in mid-November of last year — serendipitously, in tandem with the adjacent Downtown Cary Park. “We found the space and it was meant to be. Cary has been so welcoming,” he says. “It was the perfect timing that we opened at the same time as the park.”

SAAP’s menu pays homage to Bounsanga’s time at Bida Manda but also incorporates more casual fare to satisfy guests who might be coming straight from the park. Fans of his previous restaurant will find crispy coconut rice lettuce wraps with peanuts, herbs, coconut meat and a chili sauce for dipping, plus a comforting pork belly soup in a spicy Panang curry broth.

Ninety-five percent of the menu is offered to go, and street food-style menu items include an array of skewers — shrimp, chicken satay and BBQ pork — along with Lao beef jerky and spring rolls that can easily be enjoyed parkside. “I wanted to create the concept of street food, so this is what you would find in the streets of Laos,” he says.

The interiors for SAAP were designed in collaboration with Bounsanga’s wife, Annmarie, and Shannon Laska with New City Design Group. The space is airy and modern, done in pale woods and shades of green, bursting with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows along the entire dining area. “We were able to come up with the design that would bring

the greenery from the park into the restaurant — and it feels like Laos,” says Bounsanga. The space’s vision was a family affair down to small details: Bounsanga has four daughters that all work at the restaurant: Hera, 24, the general manager; Noël, 21, a server; Grace, 25, a bartender; and Miranda, 33, a part-time server.

He says they helped with the vision of the space, even picking out the chairs to ensure maximum comfort for guests. “We want the space to feel homey and for people to enjoy themselves when they come here,” he says.

Bounsanga is proud of how his own traditional cuisine has become widely accepted and beloved in the Triangle community. “In the years since we opened Bida Manda, the public is more familiar with Laotian cuisine,” he says. “Lao Lao Food Truck has gained great popularity, among others. The more the better, I love to see the energy around it.”

“SAAP is the perfect embodiment of Lon’s many years in the hospitality industry,” says Patrick Woodson, Bounsanga’s former colleague and owner of Brewery Bhavana. “Walking in and being greeted by his daughters and seeing him walk around the dining room, talking with all the guests, makes me feel like I am being invited into his home for a personal meal. I’m so happy that he has a place to call his own and show the world his amazing gift.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.