EXCLUSIVE: Chef Lon Bounsanga of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana is opening his own restaurant in Downtown Cary.
Lon Bounsanga, who’s helmed both Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana’s kitchens for the last decade, is ready to break out on his own. The longtime executive chef is leaving the Downtown Raleigh restaurants at the end of May to open his own Laotian restaurant this fall. Beyond a vibrant food & bev program, SAAP (which translates to delicious) adds location to its allure—poised to be positioned on the first floor of The Walker, a luxury apartment building on the edge of the new Downtown Cary Park.
“It’s the right time for me,” said Bounsanga in an exclusive interview with Raleigh Magazine. “All the ingredients and resources are available to make this dream a reality.”
The Vientiane, Laos, native cut his teeth in restaurant kitchens as a teenager before being hired in 2012 to open Bida Manda—one of only a handful of Laotian restaurants in the country at the time. In 2017, he became the executive chef at Bhavana, which was featured in the likes of Forbes and Bon Appetit.
Along with those highs, Bounsanga also faced some irreproachable lows during his tenure at the two beleaguered restaurants. In 2020, the restaurants’ co-owner and general manager Vansana “Van” Nolintha and beverage director Jordan Hester were accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace conduct, sending shockwaves through the hospitality community—and almost leading to the restaurants’ demise. Following the accusations, Nolintha stepped away from any involvement in the restaurants and Hester, who was fired, pled guilty to associated charges in court (note: Bounsanga was not one of the accused employees).
Despite the collateral damage, Bounsanga kept his head down and respectfully stayed the course, continuing to churn out great product that has since reinvigorated the duo of sup spots (Bhavana was named among Raleigh Mag’s 2022 25 Best Restaurants) and learn how to metaphorically make lemonade out of lemons.
“I’ve always cared genuinely about my team,” he said. “When things got rough, I wanted to support my staff at both restaurants. My only goal was to stay strong and reassure my people until we could reopen the restaurants.”
Bounsanga maintains the culture at SAAP will be just as much a priority as the dishes and drinks, with plans to support all aspects of a secure and respectful environment, and offer competitive wages and benefits that’ll be able to attract a top-notch team.
“What I have learned [from my time at Bida Manda/Brewery Bhavana] is you need to create a great work environment to run a successful restaurant,” he said. “Above all, we will provide strong human resources support to make sure people thrive and grow with us. It’s not
just a promise—it’s what I aspire to provide as a chef-owner.”
Meanwhile, SAAP’s menu will feature the fresh, clean Laotian cuisine for which Bounsanga is known—and folks have come to love.
“Just as you would expect to see French onion soup and croque monsieur on the menu of every French restaurant, green papaya salad and crispy pork belly soup are iconic Laotian dishes you will definitely see on the menu at SAAP,” he said. Crispy rice, satays, curries and more will also grace the offerings.
The variety of delicious dishes, Bounsanga adds, will be designed in a way that guests can sample and share, while the bar will serve wine, beer, and handcrafted mocktails and cocktails that pair perfectly with his fare. Menu items for easy enjoyment in the park are an added bonus.
“I think Laotian food—which is influenced by Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines—is a perfect fit for a community as diverse as Cary,” said Bounsanga. “So when Bill Zahn, who is very involved in Downtown Cary projects, approached me about opening a restaurant next to what is going to be a world-class park, it immediately made sense. Who could pass up that opportunity?”
For his part, Zahn says: “We have been holding onto two restaurant spaces at The Walker for the right chefs and great concepts. I was thoroughly impressed with chef Lon Bounsanga. Not only is his food phenomenal, but his kitchen is one of the happiest workplaces I’ve ever seen. I’m excited to be able to partner with chef Lon and bring his amazing food to one of our spaces in Downtown Cary.”
Let the deliciousness commence (!).