“These menus have been driving me insane since I re-did them,” Chris says on the topic of his sleek blackboard menus. The wall menus at Laohaus provide a particular atmosphere to the restaurant. The boards themselves are shiny, polished and very clean looking; the vibrant coloured marker font jumps out. The chirography is particular, loose, but clean and consistent. It’s a font that’s purposeful, personal, but bold in public.
I once helped Chris write a special features menu on a patio-board because he was busy finishing the dishes. “You’d better do it,” he told me. “My OCD would make it take hours.” Midway through he curiously peeked at what I’d written – or more specifically, how I’d written it. “That’s interesting, that’s how you do your ‘E’.” Realizing that a critique of my lettermanship might come across as a little weird, he went full disclosure: “I had a time where I was all about working on my own alphabet. I thought a lot about how I’d write each letter. I’m happy with it, but I never settled on a way that I liked my e’s or my g’s. With the g’s you’ve got to think about if it dips down or comes back to itself.”
Creating your own alphabet is a hip-hop pursuit, if ever there were one. The graffiti artists first discipline is to innovate their own writing. It’s an obsessive form of street calligraphy, like a medieval tome broken open and washed over the inner city walls. The way to appreciate the cryptic scrawl of street art is to first decipher the alphabet, to appreciate the ebb and flow of the font, to determine where each letter begins and ends. A controversial aesthetic, focused on laws obsessive about ownership of properties and boundaries around public space, the enthusiast finds in street art something totally alive and Dionysian, and something unsettlingly prophetic.
The specificity of the word comes up all over the place at Laohaus. Things are contemplated and applied with an artists touch. That things are correct and weighted right is underlying and critical. When Chris re-wrote the menu boards earlier this week it took him hours. “If I put something out there and its not right, and the way its supposed to be, it just drives me nuts. Every time I see it it gets to me. I’m like that with everything.” Even in the kitchen where the cook has to measure their own obsessiveness against time and understanding the customers expectations, obsessiveness wins for Chris. Under the pressure of a rush, where most chefs would cut corners and start saying to themselves “the customer won’t notice” Chris will take the extra time to make sure things come out right.
The particular English spelling and pronunciation of Lao words has its peculiarities. To an English speaker Lao is a language of bendy soft consonants that dip and lur into a hard to define middle-space. The national dish of Laos is larb, which is a sort of marinated meat salad. The Lao alphabet itself uses Sanskrit influenced characters and doesn’t have a consistent Romanization into our alphabet. The tendency is to say larb like carb, emphasizing the hard ‘r’ and ‘b.’ Other renderings into English read it as laab, or laap, which is a little closer sounding to its Lao pronunciation, but still not quite right. The ‘r’ sound is present albeit incredibly soft, and the ‘b’ sound almost doesn’t happen at all, dipping slightly into the sound of a ‘p’.
“We’ve thought a lot about how we write these words on the menu. On one hand, we stress that we’ve got a whole town saying the word laRB, but people that care about it listen to how we say it and figure it out. You have to do things the right way that you think they should be done – even if its different than they expect, if its done right then your real audience will feel it. You just lose yourself in pandering.”