This month marks Bida Manda’s fourth birthday, and the milestone will be celebrated with two guests of honor who have a strong presence in the restaurant yet they’ve never stepped inside. After a 12-year struggle to secure travel visas, owners Vansana Nolintha and his sister Vanvisa Nolintha will finally welcome their parents to Bida Manda—a restaurant named in their honor—for the very first time.
Bida Manda is the ceremonial term for “father mother” in Sanksrit, and the restaurant is a loving ode not only to family but to the Nolintha’s homeland—one that combines culture and cuisine—and transports diners to a far off destination. Sure, the wood that decorates the walls—oak, birch and maple—is all from North Carolina, but the food on the table has exotic origins rooted in Laos, a landlocked Asian country about the size of Illinois.
“We always felt a sense of responsibility to represent an introduction of an entire cuisine. Last year, we served over 100,000 people. That’s 100,000 introductions to Laos,” says Vansana. “We have decided that we should focus on the things that we truly enjoy. So we dig deep into our parents’ recipes.”
A sacred experience
Thanks to the Mekong River, rice is plentiful in Laos. And thanks to a culture of hospitality, it’s ingrained in a common greeting, “Sabaidee, Kin Khao Leo Bor,” that means both hello and “Have you had rice yet?” says Vansana, 30, who was born Laos.
Rice is a fundamental staple at Bida Manda, offered in a beloved crispy form or sticky texture. There are other favorites authentic to Laos, too. Consider the lemon grass sausage, pork belly soup and spring rolls, which are rolled by hand and—in a moment of reverence—blessed by Noy, a Laotian woman who prepares them.
“Preparing food is a sacred experience in our culture…the craft of making the rolls with intention is very important,” says Van, of Noy’s ability to turn a mundane task into a meaningful practice. “Her gentleness is really contagious in the kitchen.”
Asian Soul Food
What’s on the simple blue and white plates isn’t often called “ethnic food,” though. Bida Manda found a way to bypass that sometimes misunderstood term entirely. Its patrons, the ones lucky enough to get a table, just think of it as food. Good food. And they’ve been raving, posting and sharing about the downtown eatery since it opened in Raleigh’s Moore Square in 2012.
A weeks-long wait for dinner reservations isn’t unusual. But the Nolinthas are determined that each patron feels consideration no matter how popular the eatery.
“If we are not honoring that, we are just going to become a busy restaurant,” he says. “And we really want to focus on relationships, authenticity and community.”
Nolintha’s thoughtful and peaceful approach to the community he serves is one element that distinguishes Bida Manda from other restaurants in the vicinity. Peace is important to Van, who studied design at N.C. State University and international peace and conflict at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. It may not seem that those studies would be connected, or even connected to the food industry, but they are to Van.
“Peace is a construction through the community—a comprehensive experience,” he says. “Dealing with peace on a human, day-to-day level is looking at peace as community building.”
The Nolintha’s will open a new gathering place later this year in the 9,000-square-foot space that used to house Tir Na Nog. The space will feature a brewery and Dim sum restaurant with a small retail area that celebrates flowers and books. Van was inspired by the notion of creating a community living room where artists, residents and young creatives, amongst others, could meet.
“The project has its own heartbeat,” he says. “The space will evolve.” But for now, he’s enjoying the mystery of the process and looking forward to celebrating with his mother and father.