By Cameron Lee
October 29, 2019
Many believe the sounds of your environment may enhance or affect the taste of your food. The bustling noises at the Vieng Keo Asian Market off Little Rock Rd. are unusual for an ideal food outing to say the least. Cargo trucks rumble down the street, bells jingle on the busy market entrance door, and the occasional roar of an airplane flyover is the typical soundtrack for this curbside eatery.
Johnny “JP” Vong is the owner of JP Food ToGo, the colorful and gleaming Lao food truck that tucks snugly into the Vieng Keo Asian Market. Seven days a week, you can enjoy authentic Lao cuisine at a reasonable cost as everyday, hundreds of flavor-filled Lao sausages, portions of sticky rice, banh mi sandwiches and pad thai are cranked out of the pristine mobile kitchen. It’s important to note– the food truck is immaculate– both inside and out.
Johnny moved to the west side of Charlotte in 1989 with his family at four years old, but it wasn’t long ago he started flexing his culinary chops constructing banh mi sandwiches out of the Asian grocery store owned by his wife Pone Naovarath’s parents, Vieng and Keo. The market, once a church and pool hall, packs all of the essentials for many Southeast Asians in the community, like fresh Thai chillies, bok choy, mint, Thai basils, and the unique but ever-versatile jackfruit. An overwhelming selection of dry and instant noodles, sauces, spices and snacks fill the aisles that are replenished every Wednesday at this resourceful grocery store servicing an underserved community of Asians in the area.
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For three years, Johnny served up authentic banh mi’s while slowly thinking about the concept of a food truck. “People didn’t really know unless they came to the grocery store, we didn’t really promote it out to everybody. We just had a little sandwich counter,” said Vong. When the JP Food ToGo officially opened in June of 2017, it didn’t take long for the word to spread. “It’s been mainly all word-of-mouth; you’ll get a new customer to come and experience the food, and they’ll go around and tell everybody. We’ve had people from Raleigh, Greensboro, New York, all over.”
The pad thai, banh mi, larb, papaya salad, and chicken wings are some of the popular items, but the Lao sausage, sticky rice and the chili sauce is a bit of a spiritual experience. Sticky rice, quite literally for Laos culture, is somewhat of a sacred tradition that is the centerpiece of every meal. The soft and chewy texture of the sticky rice with the rich and fatty sausage, combined with the fresh green chili sauce, makes you wonder why food need be so convoluted. It’s a simple meal, with simple flavors that instantly immerse you into the culture of Laotian people. While often overlooked when talking about Southeast Asian cuisine, the landlocked country of Laos has heavily influenced the food of Thailand while also adopting French culinary standards, much like the Vietnamese.
Similar to the sticky rice that serves as a communal focal point for Lao fare, the Vieng Keo Asian Market and JP Food ToGo truck is also a home base of sorts for the Asian community in West Charlotte. Johnny’s commitment to family and philanthropy is evident through his passion to not only teach younger generations, like his nephews Leo “Jammie” Naovarath and Tho Naovarath (who work as assistant chefs), but to give back to the community. “If I’m not here, Tho takes charge. It’s really all family,” he said. Whether it’s the school supply drives at Mount Carmel Baptist Church or donating food for Soul Food West Charlotte community gatherings at Thrift United Methodist Church, or donating to temples, Johnny’s energy is naturally selfless and extremely welcoming to all-comers.
On most days, you can see Johnny’s kids Kyla, Keeana, and Kaiden helping out at the store after school engaging in playful and adolescent conversations while his cousin Stacy and niece Lynn greet customers at the market with a welcoming smile. Johnny’s wife Pone is also, of course, a vital part of the businesses and the delicious food that serves hundreds of hungry patrons on any given day. Hand-making their classic Lao sausages every morning out of their commissary, the shop and the food truck have a genuine family feel.
While the sounds of cranes and construction may agitate many in a city where clumsy growth is ever expanding with callous chain restaurants, JP Food ToGo is a shimmering symbol of community. Congealing a city and Asian culture, much like the delectable sticky rice they joyfully serve, the often forgotten food and culture of Laotians, is not easily forgettable at JP Food ToGo.
JP Food ToGo is located at 2626 Little Rock Rd, Charlotte, NC 28214. The food truck is open 7 days a week from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays.
Video shot and edited by Brandon Torres.