The upcoming Strange Foods Festival started with an Instagram account. A year and a half ago Keng Sisavath, a 36-year-old dental technician, launched @strangefoodschicago to “introduce the food of my motherland,” he says. Sisavath, who was born in a refugee camp on the border of Thailand and Laos, came to the U.S. as a toddler and was raised in Green Bay, Wisconsin, by Lao relatives. The problem with trying to photograph Lao food in the Chicago area according to Sisavath, is that there isn’t much: unlike Green Bay, Chicago doesn’t have a significant Lao population. “When a Lao opens up a restaurant [in Chicago] they have to put the name Thai on it because people don’t know about Lao food,” he says. “The food isn’t mainstream. I want to change that.”
As Sisavath’s Instagram account gained popularity (currently it has more than 37,000 followers), he documented food from ethnic restaurants all over Chicago and into the suburbs, “strange” and not so. Of course, what might be considered strange in North American culture is perfectly normal in others, a fact that Sisavath recognizes and readily admits. The goal of the festival, which he’s coproducing with Jed Swartz (who runs the Instagram account @chicagofoodevents), isn’t to shock people with weird food—quite the opposite, in fact. “I want people to know that the food isn’t that strange, it’s actually good,” Sisavath says. “And then the next time it can get really crazy, really authentic.”
Sisavath worries that as Chicago neighborhoods gentrify, traditional foods will die out. “I like classic, simple food,” he says. “Tacos—they’ve changed. People are throwing everything in tacos.” Jarabe Mexican Street Food used to sell eyeball tacos at Maxwell Street Market, Sisavath says, but stopped after realizing younger generations weren’t particularly interested. Jarabe will, however, be serving the tacos at the Strange Foods Festival. Other cuisines that will be represented among the 15-odd restaurants include Thai, Cambodian, Georgian, Malaysian, Japanese, Moroccan, and Lao—though for the last one Sisavath had to invite Atlanta’s KhaoLaam, because there aren’t any local Lao restaurants he considers authentic. White Pearl in Elgin has transitioned to an Americanized menu, and Spicy Lao Thai in Burbank doesn’t measure up to his expectations. “They’re afraid to serve the true flavors,” he says. “That is why they don’t come” to the festival.
Sisavath has more than a passing knowledge of most of the restaurants he did invite to the festival: he says he’s eaten at about 90 percent of them—in many cases, dozens of times. He estimates that he’s eaten more than 200 meals at Dancen, a Korean bar that he says is his favorite restaurant in Chicago. Most of the places he likes to eat are small and family run, and along the way he’s developed relationships with the owners. Without those relationships, Sisavath says, the festival would probably never have happened. “It’s about trust. It’s hard to get these restaurants. But I love a challenge.”
As for the places he goes back to over and over, Sisavath puts Immm Rice & Beyond near the top of the list. “I like everything there—all the dishes are my favorite,” he says. Saigon Bistro has some of the best Cajun crawfish in town, according to Sisavath, and he considers the Hainanese chicken (poached chicken with rice) at Serai, a Malaysian restaurant, top-notch.
For other restaurants, though, Sisavath is hard-pressed to name a favorite dish because he usually tries to order off-menu or from the “secret,” usually untranslated, menus that many ethnic restaurants have. “I always ask for the underground food. Sometimes they’ll be afraid to serve it to me because they don’t know me at these ethnic restaurants. They’ll say they don’t have it. But they do. You have to build a relationship with them and finally they’ll give it to you. It’s like a secret club.”