It seems so long ago now. But back in March, we introduced you to Chef Darlene Vanmanivong, an accomplished chef who lent her wide-ranging culinary talents and knowledge of Lao fare to the successful SapSap pop-up at Crossroads collective. She told us about her journey in reconnecting with Lao culture and the inspiration she gleaned from her grandmother to pursue a career in food.
Her story itself is compelling. But it's even more powerful when combined with a taste of her cooking, which embodies the vibrance of citrus and fresh herbs, the fiery burn of chilies and the complexity of umami-rich sauces and marinades.
Fortunately for all of us, that will be an easy thing to do since Vanmanivong‘s new restaurant concept is opening up at the Crossroads Collective, 2238 N. Farwell Ave., beginning today, June 3.
Vanmannivong and her husband Alex Beck are at the helm of Thum, a concept named for the Lao term that means "to pound or smash."
It’s a reference to the sound made by a cloke and sok, the deep cone-shaped mortar and pestle used to smash ingredients and aromatics that contribute to dishes like papaya salad, jeow and more.
The concept is cleverly integrated into the restaurant’s logo – designed by RevPop – in which the "U" represents the cloke and the exclamation point represents the sok. Together, the form imagery that’s integral to the traditions and techniques used in creating traditional Lao fare.
"So few people know anything about Laos," says Vanmanivong, noting that much of the knowledge Americans have is tied to the secret war, a CIA-initiative during the Vietnam War which utilized Hmong soldiers to prevent the threat of communism from spreading deeper into Southeast Asia.
"When people think of Laos, they don’t necessarily have a lot of positive thoughts. So this is my way of sharing what I know of Lao culture, and sharing with them the love that my grandmother passed down to me through her food."
On the menu
Thum’s menu showcases a literal feast of the bright, vibrant flavors inherent to traditional Lao cuisine in the form of accessible dishes that can be enjoyed in various combinations for a new experience every time.
Starter style options include crisp Lao eggrolls filled with pork, cabbage and carrots and served with sweet, tangy sauce for dipping ($5 for three).
There are also tender fried chicken wings tossed in a sweet, slightly spicy sauce and topped with crispy fried garlic ($8 for six).
Guests will find fresh, fiery papaya salad chock full of strands of smashed papaya, long beans and tomatoes and dressed in tart, spicy tamarind dressing ($6). It’s perfect eaten out of hand using sticky rice as an apt fire taming utensil.
You wouldn’t be wrong to pair it with an order of sticky rice cakes, which have been simply fried in an egg batter ($5 for three). These noshable cakes are a great accompaniment to any of Thum’s flavor filled sauces or savory dishes.
Folks will be pleasantly surprised by the multi-layered flavor of Vanmanivong’s chicken laab, which combines salty, sour and sweet flavors with bright notes of mint and citrusy cilantro. It’s served with sticky rice for scooping and fresh vegetables for crunch ($10). It’s honestly among the best I’ve tried; be sure to take advantage of the accompanying lime and squeeze its juices over the top.
Expertly grilled beef is flavored by a Lao marinade and beautifully charred on the exterior ($13). It’s best wrapped in a wad of sticky rice and enjoyed with a liberal dash of jeow som.
There’s also big flavor in the Lao marinated chicken breast, which is redolent with the brightness of both ginger and lemongrass while showcasing a rich, slightly smoky exterior char ($11, served with sticky rice and your choice of sauces). It's lovely with the spicy eggplant jeow, a rich complex condiment with the texture of a chutney or thick salsa.
Extra sticky rice can also be purchased for $2, along with additional sauces (tomato jeow, eggplant jeow, sweet and sour sauce or jeow som) for $1 each. Seriously, you’ll want to try them all.
Keep an eye on Thum
Moving forward, Vanmanivong says she’d like to add a number of additional traditional Lao dishes to the menu including Lao curries, noodle dishes like kua mee (rice noodles with soy and oyster sauces, palm sugar, fried shallots, egg, fresh herbs, and lime juice), along with soups like khao piak sen, a rich hearty version of Lao chicken noodle soup.
And yes, there might even be some creative fusion added to the mix in the months ahead.
Vanmanivong says that making the decision to open during the COVID-19 pandemic was a tough one. "But ultimately," she says, "We know what we’re getting into and we have absolutely nothing to lose."
Meanwhile, she says community and nourishing people is really at the heart of what she aims to do at Thum. In kind, she hopes that as the business begins to make money, that she can find ways to do as so many other restaurants – including The Tandem, Heaven’s Table BBQ and Dandan – have done and contribute to the community in a meaningful way.
Thum is open for curbside pick-up Monday through Saturday between 11 a.m. and 9 p.m. Orders can be placed online and picked up outside the building on Ivanhoe.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.