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Mona’s Super Noodle Offers an Expert Combination of Laotian, Vietnamese, and Thai Food

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When Mona Kettavhong emigrated from Laos in 2007, she only knew one other person living in the United States.

“I wanted to come here for a couple of years, and now I don’t want to go back,” Mona says, letting out a cheerful laugh in the sun-drenched dining room of her restaurant, Mona’s Super Noodle. Mona opened the Laos-inspired restaurant in February of 2021 on a high-trafficked corner in the bustling neighborhood of Hampden.

“I decided to open this for a long time, but it’s very hard to open a restaurant,” she pauses. “If you don’t do it right … you’re done.”

Mona, a nickname given by her grandmother, spent the last 15 years working in restaurants before opening Mona’s Super Noodle with her own savings. Her restaurant has become a popular spot in the neighborhood over the last two years. On any given night you might find Mona filling in any role at the restaurant, but she shines in customer service.

When not rushing around, she can be seen sharing a laugh with a customer, playing peek-a-boo with a young diner, or making sure her patrons are happy. It’s hard to imagine Mona not surrounded by an adoring community of supporters. The dining room is typically full at dinner and takeout bags line the counter waiting for pickups, but bringing the restaurant to reality was a long road.

 

Mona’s first job in the US was as a dishwasher. “Sweating, wet, like all my clothes,” she recalls those first days working in a kitchen. “My hand couldn’t close, it was too much for me.” She left that job and moved from Maryland to California.

Three months later, her friend called to say she should return to Baltimore to work as a server at Atwater’s in Belvedere Square. “I worked at Belvedere for 15 years,” she says of her time as a server, line cook, food runner, front of house, doing “everything,” at Atwater’s.

Over the last 15 years, Mona has not gone home to Laos, and no one from her family has visited her here. “It’s hard to come here,” she explains of the visa process. “It’s not expensive, but you have to go interview.”

Mona, born Vilayvanh Kettavhong, grew up in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, with her five siblings. Her mother worked as a French teacher for over 30 years, a profession reminiscent of the colonial French period that ended in 1953. Mona, who says French was too hard to learn, learned Chinese and English instead. She worked as a Chinese translator for many years in Laos. One day, her friend’s mother moved to the United States and started sending money home. “It was a lot of money,” Mona remembers. The salaries in Laos were low and Mona began to consider life in the United States.

 

“I [didn’t] think I can come, you have to have a lot of money,” Mona reminisces, telling the story of the man who helped her come to the United States. Her favorite sugarcane stand operator also helped people fill out visa paperwork and schedule interviews at the US Embassy. He encouraged Mona to bring her passport. The same day he helped her fill out the visa forms, she interviewed at the embassy. “I passed!” she recalls her initial shock. Mona moved to Maryland to join the only person she knew living in the United States, her friend’s mom.

“Most people know Thailand more than my country,” she said. Mona explains that after the Thai-Lao Border War in the 1980s, part of Laos was divided and annexed by Thailand. Because of this, she says, “The food [in those areas] is the same as in my country.”

Laos is a small country, about the size of California, landlocked between and often overshadowed by its neighbors, Vietnam and Thailand. Mona’s Super Noodle is a fusion of all three countries’ cuisine. The bestseller is the pho.

 

Mona shows us the humble kitchen where gigantic pots simmer various flavors of pho broth. I ask how long they will cook. “A long time,” she tells us. “It’s gonna steam like that all day, all night. Eight hours.”

Pho, most commonly associated with Vietnamese cuisine, has been rising in popularity in the US since 1975 after waves of immigrants fled to the US after the end of the Vietnam War. The soup originated in Vietnam during the French occupation in the early 20th century as a rich beef soup that pleased the French palate. The soup contains a savory broth, rice noodles, herbs, and meat. Mona explained that the broth is the main difference between Laos and Vietnamese pho.

“Vietnamese, they put a lot of spice, like star anise.” Mona’s broth is more approachable, a simplified recipe that maintains richness without too many competing flavors.

 

Mona keeps the broth simple, but she is not opposed to spice. She has her own special spice blend to add heat to her dishes and offers diners the option to choose their spicy level, from “no spicy” to “spicy 5.” The spicy sauce starts with dried Thai chili peppers imported from Laos, toasted and blended with oil and garlic. I asked how the spicy levels are determined: “One is a little bit, two is more than a little bit,” and so on.

The spice blend is at every table for diners in the restaurant. “Sometimes people think the pepper is not spicy and put a big scoop on there,” she paused. “Oh my God, the soup was so red,” she said, comically recalling her shock at some dishes that people could barely finish. She encourages diners who are unsure of their spice tolerance to ask for it on the side and to add it slowly.

Mona’s sweet and sour dipping sauce, on the other hand, is a sauce you can add without consequence. The special sauce—a proprietary blend of sweet, tangy, and umami flavors—is served with Mona’s Chicken Box. The Laotian-style fried chicken is boxed with sticky rice and sweet dipping sauce. Forgo modesty and plan to eat this dish with your hands. Use the sweet and sour sauce abundantly and don’t be afraid to get a little sticky.

 

The noodles are made fresh in Virginia and delivered weekly. The menu has classic noodle dishes such as pad thai, pad see ew, and drunken noodles. The kitchen has no problem making the noodle dishes vegan.

Mona credits the chicken box recipe to her wife, Luna. In fact, little touches from Luna can be found all over the restaurant. The décor, tables, lighting, wall color, as well as several menu items also have Luna’s fingerprints on them. “Accounting, payroll,” Mona lists Luna’s contributions, “watches the kids, takes them to school… She does a lot!”

Mona invites everyone in her life into the restaurant. Her customers. Her wife. Her friends and their children. A young server, Melanie, arrives to open the restaurant while we’re sitting. Mona says she met Melanie when she was still a kid running around in a onesie; Mona’s Super Noodle is her first job.

Mona’s ambition, nurturing spirit, and joyous personality have shaped her life over the past 15 years, but not without help from others along the way. Mona’s journey encapsulates the complexity of every individual decision that we make. From her friend’s mom who decided to live in Maryland, to the sugarcane operator who pushed her forward, to the friend who introduced her to her wife—each of our lives is a glass box covered with the fingerprints of others.

“You can’t be scared. I’m not scared,” she said of her journey.

The menu will stay the same through the end of 2022. In December, Mona will return to visit her family in Laos for the first time in 15 years. She plans to open the back room as a cocktail bar and add new menu items when she comes back. “New year, new things,” she says, leaning back in her chair with a big smile on her face as the sun glistens through the windows.

 

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