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Thursday, February 22, 2018

Seven Corners chef is getting national attention

Padaek owner and chef Seng Luangrath.
Padaek, a small Laotian restaurant in a Seven Corners strip mall, is getting widespread acclaim. Executive Chef and owner Seng Luangrath was nominated for a 2018 James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic Region.

“I was really surprised. I didn’t expect this. It blew my mind,” says Luangrath. The Beard Awards are like the Oscars for chefs.
A version of laab made from steamed catfish served with sticky rice.
While Padaek started as a Thai restaurant – it was previously known as Bangkok Golden – its Lao specialties are what’s attracting attention from restaurant critics, foodies, and other chefs.  

Lao food is similar to the cuisine of northern Thailand, but uses less coconut milk and is spicier, Luangrath says. There are complex flavors, due to the use of fermented fish sauce and fresh chilis and herbs. Nearly every dish at Padaek comes with sticky rice, and often includes raw lemongrass, ginger, mint, and basil.

“I always had a passion for cooking,” says Luangrath, who learned to cook from her grandmother in Laos. The family relocated to a refugee camp in Thailand when she was a child, where her mother, who was more interested in a career than cooking, put Luangrath in charge of preparing meals.  

After a stint at another refugee camp in the Philippines, they immigrated to Berkeley, Calif., in 1983 when Luangrath was 14. She continued serving as the family’s cook and honed her skills by watching cooking shows on PBS.

Luangrath eventually married and moved to Northern Virginia where she and her husband, Boun Khammanivanh, launched a flooring business in 1999, then a business involved with military housing. While raising a family, Luangrath was trying to figure out what to do with her life. She spent weekends cooking for relatives, who urged her to open a restaurant.

When they purchased Bangkok Golden in 2009, they kept the name and menu but started introducing Lao specialties.

“I didn’t know how to run a businesses, but I believed in my instincts. I believed in my food. I decided to put myself out there and do what I feel comfortable,” Luangrath says.

A salad with papaya, crispy coconut rice, fish sauce, and herbs.
Her friends discouraged her from serving Lao food because it’s unfamiliar in this area. But Luangrath, says, “I wanted to promote Lao food and culture to everyone.” 

When a Washington Post food critic gave the restaurant glowing review, “that’s when we blew up,” she says, attracting regular diners of all backgrounds from all over the area who have come to appreciate Lao food. “I want to be part of the community,” she says.

Last year, they changed the name of the restaurant to Padaek, which means “unfiltered fermented fish sauce.”

Among menu items at Padaek, Luangrath suggests new diners start with tham mak huong, a papaya salad with a pungent fish sauce.

One of Luangrath’s favorites is nam khao – a salad with crispy coconut rice, curry, lime, rice-cured pork sausage, peanuts, cilantro, and scallions served with lettuce for wrapping – which reminds her of riding a bike to shop from the food vendors along the Mekong River.   

Another specialty is laab, a chopped meat, fish, or tofu dish made with toasted rice powder called khao kha, fish sauce, lime juice, chopped galangao (an herb like lemongrass but milder), mint leaves, cilantro, and scallions served with vegetables and sticky rice in a little Laotian basket. Luangrath also urges diners to try sai oua, a spicy sausage made with lemongrass.

“This is the food we eat at home,” she says. “It’s not watered down for the non-Lao person.”

In 2014, Luangrath and Khammanivanh opened another Lao restaurant, Thip Khao, in Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C.

Thip Khao was nominated for a James Beard Award last year and was listed in Bon Appetit as one of the 50 best new restaurants in the United States in 2015. Luangrath was named Chef of the Year in 2015 by DC Eater.

Luangrath has no idea how Padaek was nominated for a James Beard Award. In each region, committees of chefs, food critics, and food influencers check out restaurants in secret and come up with a list of 200 to 300 names, which eventually get whittled down to 20 semifinalists.

Luangrath is just one of three semifinalists from Virginia in the Mid-Atlantic Region, which covers five states plus D.C. The finalists will be announced March 14, then a single chef will be named in each category at a gala May 7.

“Being nominated is a huge deal for me,” Luangrath said. “It’s a big accomplishment. It’s more than enough for me.”

Padaek is at 6395 Seven Corners Center. Entrees are $10 to $15. Small plates are $7 to $9. There’s lunch buffet for $12. It’s closed on Tuesdays.


  1. The Padaek restaurant is great! When I go there it's always hard to get a table. People are hanging out the door trying to get in. Carryout works well.

  2. Great news and a good plug for the 7 corners corridor. Now only if our dimwit politicians and the Fairfax planning staff could figure out how to capitalize on this and grow the area into an ethnic restaurant mecca instead of a section 8 dump.

  3. I love this place! They have a Thai lunch buffet every weekday except Tuesday when they are closed. It is usually packed but not hard to get a table for two if you show up at the right time. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to call ahead and see if they are busy. Remember, they have two different menus, Thai and Lao, or at least they did before the name change.