Ma Der Ma Der Sap House and Grill
By Jon Lewis
Food Truck to Foundation
By Jon Lewis
Photo by Manda Reed
Working at a restaurant is hot, hectic, time-consuming, unrelenting and hard. And
it’s exactly where Alain Phouansavanh wants to be.
“You have to be committed 100 percent or this business is not for you,” Phouansavanh says on a recent morning as he readies the Ma Der Ma Der Sap House & Grill for another day’s steady stream of customers. “But this is what I love. This is what I grew up doing.”
With support and encouragement from his older brother, Alex, Phouansavanh opened his restaurant in late September, moving into the former home of Wilda’s Grill on Placer Street in downtown Redding.
Boasting a fusion of Lao, Thai, Mexican and American cuisine, Ma Der Ma Der stands out, even in Redding’s restaurant-rich environment. In the Laotian language, Ma Der Ma Der translates roughly to “come on, come on” and Sap is a Lao adjective that refers to delicious or flavorful food, or “the bomb,” Phouansavanh says with a smile.
The restaurant is the continuation of a food service mission the two brothers started with the Yellow Lunch Box, a popular food truck that’s now being operated by a cousin. The food truck, in turn, was another installment in what has been Phouansavanh’s lifelong interest in cooking.
“I’ve always cooked,” he says. “I always cooked at parties and I like to be the barbecue guy.” Phouansavanh, 28, traces his appreciation of cooking to his childhood when—again at brother Alex’s encouragement—he would prepare dinners at home. Helping in the kitchen was a way to support his parents, Ban and Tam, who were hard at work at Doughboy Donuts, the Lake Boulevard shop they’ve operated for years.
Phouansavanh’s parents, who were born in Laos, immigrated to the United States and went to work at a bakery in Susanville before acquiring a former Winchell’s Donuts shop in Redding. Phouansavanh’s mother attended Shasta College to learn English. As the mother of four boys, he says she appreciated the help in the kitchen.
Alex and Alain also would give up their weekends to give their parents a hand at the shop. Phouansavanh says that experience taught him the value of hard work and provided him with real-life lessons on what it takes to make a business successful.
There’s a lot going on behind the scenes—paying bills, managing inventory, shopping—and a lot going on behind the counter and in the kitchen. In a small but popular spot like Ma Der Ma Der, Phouansavanh says it’s a balancing act to offer consistent quality while getting customers in and out as quickly as possible.
Alex, a firefighter stationed on the Modoc National Forest, helps at the restaurant when his schedule allows. He says the idea to open a restaurant was an obvious one. “We love to cook and everybody enjoyed our cooking so we did this. We wanted to share what we like with the community.”
Two nephews, Brandon Souriyaseng and Johnny Saefong, make up the rest of Ma Der Ma Der’s full-time crew. “I’m definitely proud of these guys,” Alex says. “We couldn’t do it without them.”
The menu, which Phouansavanh created with help from Alex, is a tribute to his childhood, his Lao heritage and his lifelong appreciation of robust flavors. Leading the way is the Sapritto, a thoroughly original—“you won’t find a Sapritto anywhere else in the country,” Phouansavanh boasts—take on a burrito that features a tortilla stuffed with mushrooms, bell pepper, onions, house-ground Lao sausage, beef, fried eggs, sticky rice and a choice of four sauces.
He learned to make Pad Thai, a traditional stir-fried noodle dish, from his mother. From there, the menu explodes with flavorful options, including tacos made of Lao sausage or blackened shrimp, chicken wings, freshly cut French fries, a “Redding Ribeye Cheese Steak Sub,” egg rolls and beef sticks.
A key to many of the dishes are the four house-made sauces, which Phouansavanh created a year ago when he was asked to come up with chicken wing ideas to pair with selected Wildcard Brewing ales. Roasted jalapeno is the mildest of the bunch, followed by the sweet and spicy honey Sriracha. The roasted Thai chili offers a slow but serious burn and the roasted habanero sauce promises to satisfy the most ardent of heat lovers.
Chris Haedrich, a commercial realtor, has been a Ma Der Ma Der fan since his first visit. “I was instantly impressed,” he says. While not claiming to be an expert on Southeast Asian cuisine, Haedrich says he has visited Laos and Thailand “and when I ate a Sapritto I was transported back there. It’s a great mix of flavors and spices.”
Marc Dadigan, a community educator and freelance journalist, says the restaurant is an excellent way to show out-of-town guests that Redding has some surprises up its culinary sleeve. “The blend of Lao and Mexican flavors is outstanding, and the sauces—I usually go for the honey Sriracha—are rich and flavorful. Every time I go there, I plan to eat until I’m full as a tick.”
Dadigan soon will have more ways to impress his foodie friends. Phouansavanh says Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup that was popular on the Yellow Lunch Box, will be added to the menu this month along with a Lao-style gumbo of potatoes, eggs, pork belly, celery and carrots. •
Ma Der Ma Der Sap House & Grill
1718 Placer St., Redding • (530) 691-4194
Hours: Monday through Friday, 10 am to 7 pm;
Saturday, 10 am to 3 pm; closed Sunday