Alex Hanesakda channels his upbringing as a Laotian refugee into his work at SapSap, his Laotian fusion restaurant in Mount Pleasant. He aims to use his food to educate people on the history of Laos and its culture, and raise money to help remove undetonated explosives dropped in Laos in the 1960s and '70s. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Alex Hanesakda channels his upbringing as a Laotian refugee into his work at SapSap, his Laotian fusion restaurant in Mount Pleasant. He aims to use his food to educate people on the history of Laos and its culture, and raise money to help remove undetonated explosives dropped in Laos in the 1960s and '70s. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

The Asian fusion restaurant in Racine County serves up meals with the goal of educating people about Laos’ history and culture and raising awareness about the effects of Secret War in Laos.

Alex Hanesakda and his family came to Wisconsin as refugees in 1982 following the Secret War in Laos. As he grew up in Burlington in western Racine County, his mother would sell egg rolls to help the family get by. 

The egg rolls not only helped the family afford basic necessities like clothes, but also served as a way to educate people about Laotian culture and cuisine. 

Almost 40 years later, Hanesakda is continuing that tradition through his Asian fusion restaurant, SapSap, located in Mount Pleasant. Through his dishes—such as a fried chicken bahn mi sandwich or pho—Hanesakda combines traditional southeast Asian dishes with American influences, a melding of his heritage and upbringing in the US.

Pho is one of SapSap’s signature dishes. (Photo courtesy of SapSap)

“A lot of people still don’t know what a refugee is, or why the Afghans are here, why other refugees are coming here,” he said. “And I think educating people through our food makes it so much more powerful for people to understand what these families are going through by coming here.”

Hanesakda got his start in the food business using his mother’s egg roll recipe, which he entered into a competition in 2011. From there, it took off. In 2016, he started SapSap (named after a common Lao phrase that translates to “delicious delicious”) and began hosting pop-up dinners at a farm near Burlington and selling sausages in local grocery stores. The business snowballed from there, with Hanesakda doing pop-up dinners around the state.

This May, he opened the brick-and-mortar restaurant in Mount Pleasant for takeout, and began dine-in service soon after. The decorations are modeled after the funk- and psychedelic-inspired elements of 1960s and 1970s southeast Asia.  The designs are just another way of educating diners about Laotian culture. A painting on the eastern wall of the eatery depicts the Hanesakda family around the time they became refugees.

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“Southeast Asia … was a lot happier place before the communists took over, so we want to bring those feels back here,” Hanesakda said. “So you see a lot of different colors and interesting music, stuff like that.”

SapSap is a vessel for education, but Hanesakda also uses it to give back to both his home country and adopted community. 

More than 270 million bombs were dropped in Laos during the Vietnam War, according to Legacies of War, a nonprofit aimed at raising awareness about the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos. American forces alone went on 580,000 bombing missions there from 1964-73, according to Legacies of War, and as many as 80 million bombs did not detonate, posing a danger to this day for those who still live there. Hanesakda regularly uses SapSap’s profits to make donations to We Help War Victims, a nonprofit based near Wausau that helps remove undetonated explosives in Laos. 

“The whole focus with SapSap is to introduce people to Laos and what happened in Laos at the time,” Hanesakda said.

A serving of khao poon at SapSap. (Photo courtesy of SapSap)

This year, Hanesakda also began producing a sticky rice lager called Thum Phuk (pronounced like “dumb f–k”; thum translates to “cheers” and phuk translates to “chop”). The name, while amusing to native English speakers, serves a philanthropic purpose. Hanesakda donates 5% of Thum Phuk’s sales to We Help War Victims. 

“If we could use frat boy drinking culture to help heal parts of Laos, that’s a no-brainer for us,” he said of the beer, which is brewed by Low Daily brewery in Burlington and sold at restaurants throughout southeastern Wisconsin.

Locally, SapSap lifts up its surrounding Mount Pleasant neighborhood bordering Racine’s near south side, which is known as a somewhat troubled area. 

“My whole thing was, let’s get a place that’s not downtown [Racine],” Hanesakda said. “I believe in giving back to the community. And by bringing more traffic into an area that people don’t really come to and it’s considered kind of a bad neighborhood—this is our spot. Let’s bring life here.”