The INDY's Food Triangles: Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha of Bida Manda | EATS | Indy Week
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The INDY's Food Triangles: Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha of Bida Manda 

click to enlarge Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha are the co-owners of Raleigh's Bida Manda.

Photo by Alex Boerner

Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha are the co-owners of Raleigh's Bida Manda.

Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha do not have long work commutes.

The brother and sister rent two of three clustered apartments above a boutique in downtown Raleigh, less than a hundred yards from the front door of Bida Manda, the Laotian restaurant they opened on the edge of Moore Square in September 2012. In fact, if you exit the restaurant through the rear, the apartments' entrance is but one door away. "That makes the restaurant feel like our living room, really," says Vanvisa. "It's like we're hosting our own little dinner party every day."

An hour before the restaurant's door will swing open for weekday lunch service, Vanvisa, twenty-two months younger than her brother, Van, leans forward on a comfortably upholstered cobalt couch in Bida Manda's small rectangular waiting area. The wide window is lined with cookbooks and travel guides, philosophical tomes and photo books. A coat rack is laden with scarves and hats and jackets, as if in a family of four's front foyer. And next to the couch, atop a small bureau filled with restaurant supplies and paperwork, several Buddha figurines, dragon sculptures, and ceremonial cups of water form an altar in plain sight. Hundreds of stubby red ends remaining from burnt sticks of ritualistic incense point skyward. Waiting for a table at Bida Manda, you feel like you've stepped not into the Nolinthas' business but instead their home.

"We weren't thinking that we should make Bida Manda feel like coming home, but that came together on its own. There are different things Van and I do, just because it's part of our tradition," she says, pointing to the altar. "Coming to work doesn't really feel like work."

During the last three years, the Nolinthas have used that domestic outlook more than any business philosophy or haute couture approach to cuisine to turn Bida Manda—named for the parents they left behind in Laos before they became teenagers—into one of the state's most successful, transformative restaurants. It informs their dishes, generous and colorful regional adaptations of the curries and soups, salads and stir-fries that stem from their upbringing between the Mekong and Nham Khan rivers. The Nolinthas and a close clutch of friends built the space's walls by tying together stripped saplings from North Carolina's mountains, their lines repeating through the restaurant as a visual counterpart to a Buddhist mantra.

Many of the servers, bartenders, and cooks have been there since the start, and some will be primary partners in Plenty, the Nolinthas' forthcoming multifaceted bookshop, bar, and florist next door. Bida Manda has even become the proud employer of a dozen political refugees, with the Nolinthas hoping to extend to others the same opportunities upon which they've capitalized.

Really, Vanvisa and Vansana have turned their section of Raleigh's Blount Street into a big home for adopted kin—and invited the region in as a welcome guest to their exquisite Laotian outpost.

"We have gone through birth and death and heartaches and heartbreak and breakups here," says Van, tucked into a corner table just as the weekday dinner rush begins at his restaurant, which these days is booked for almost a month in advance. "It's a cliché thing to say, but we have become a family."

click to enlarge Bida Manda's pumpkin curry, an offering of home - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Bida Manda's pumpkin curry, an offering of home

The journey to this little block of home and to the success of Bida Manda was neither easy nor direct for the Nolinthas. In Laos, Van and Vanvisa lived happily with their parents, an older brother named Vanthana, and both of their grandmothers. They moved five times in less than a decade, including a stint in room No. 18 of a small hotel their parents ran. Vanvisa beams as she recalls singing Thai songs with her brothers while riding on the back of the flatbed truck her parents owned.

But in 1998, Van left their little Laotian village for Greensboro, moving in with an aunt and uncle who ran a set of Japanese steakhouses throughout the Triad. Their brother had already departed, eventually moving to Australia to get his master's and then his doctorate in Japan.

"That decision is part of a larger norm for developing countries," Van explains. "The main motivation is education. Mom and Dad wanted both of us to have better opportunities."

A few months after his arrival, one of the two grandmothers who helped raise him died, and he was never able to tell her goodbye. A year later, not long before her twelfth birthday, Vanvisa arrived. There were four other children in the household, and their aunt and uncle, busy with the business of their own kids and restaurants, only had so much time left in the day.

Van was tasked, by and large, with raising Vanvisa. When she was in trouble, she remembers, he would punish her by forcing her to clean the bedroom they shared, even to polish the leaves of the houseplants. At home, he would cook familiar food from Laos for her, since that was one of the few connections to home he could offer her.

Van is a perennial overachiever with brazen ambitions and a direct, engaging personality. He excelled in school, eventually earning a scholarship through N.C. State's prestigious Caldwell Fellows program and developing a love of travel. He's a focused speaker, rarely breaking eye contact and drawing you in like a politician on the campaign trail. He is, brother and sister agree, the visionary, the one with an empowered imagination and unfettered gumption.

Before they eventually opened Bida Manda, Vanvisa was the timid, less outgoing one. While he attended college in Raleigh, she worked three days each week at the Japanese steakhouse, rising from the salad station to a longtime role as a server. She worked at a nail salon, too, and seemed content with the plan to, one day, return to Laos and perhaps join a family business, maybe even start a resort with Van on land their parents owned. When Vanvisa graduated from the University of North Carolina–Greensboro, the Nolinthas indeed returned to Laos, educations dutifully obtained. Van had spent a year trying to find a job and failed, despite chemistry and design degrees from N.C. State and time spent studying international conflict at Dublin's Trinity College. He wondered what the point had been.

During that return trip to Laos, Van woke up early to go running and found his parents cooking well before dawn, just as they had when he was a kid. He marveled at their steadfast ways, their blissful contentment. While jogging, the name Bida Manda—and the concept, really—struck him. He and Vanvisa would return to North Carolina and create a little bit of Laos in Raleigh.

"I had the intention of whatever it was that I was coming back to the States to do was going to be about home. I wanted to make sure that the next chapter was about connecting back to my family's life," he remembers. "Food just happened to be the medium we chose because it's what we knew best."

When Van first told his closest friends about his dream of opening a Laotian restaurant with his sister in downtown Raleigh, they were more than a little skeptical. No one in the area knew anything about the food of Laos. The national economy was lagging. And though they had worked in the hibachi restaurants of their aunt and uncle, and though Vanvisa had majored in hotel-and-restaurant management in Greensboro, they knew virtually nothing about opening their own restaurant. (With embarrassed smiles, they separately admit they still own the copies of Running a Restaurant for Dummies they consulted in preparation.)

But those friends and mentors soon became a booster club, showing up at the Nolinthas' tiny apartment to try test dishes. The focus group reminded the brother and sister to remember what had inspired the idea—home.

"Even though we wanted to do something about Laos, the whole business plan was about creating a fusion menu. We tried so hard to push away from what we loved and genuinely enjoyed eating," remembers Van. "But tasting after tasting, the dishes that people gravitated toward most were things I remember Mom cooking, or I remember cooking for Vanvisa."

The staff of Bida Manda - PHOTO BY ALEX BOERNER
  • Photo by Alex Boerner
  • The staff of Bida Manda

That realization became the core of Bida Manda, leading the Nolinthas to hire a head chef, Lon Bounsanga, who had also immigrated from Laos. They found him through Craigslist and knew as soon as they'd visited his home that he understood the mission. At first, they fretted over the space they'd found near Moore Square; two restaurants had recently failed in the same shell. But back home, their mother proclaimed the address—222 South Blount Street—to be a lucky sequence.

And she was right: Bida Manda has since become one of the region's trademark eateries and earned award after award, including Business Insider's best restaurant in the state nod. Against most odds, it has served as a pioneer in introducing North Carolinians to the relatively unknown country and cuisine of Laos.

Bida Manda has also given the Nolinthas an opportunity to recalibrate their relationship. It has shifted from one akin to parent and daughter to one between brother and sister, or business partners. Van remains the wide-eyed dreamer and cheerleader, the one referred to by Bida Manda's staff as "Uncle Dad." Vanvisa is the detail-oriented facilitator, a manager so effective the staff calls her Mom. Vanvisa talks about what the restaurant has done for her, not what she has done for the restaurant.

Such reciprocation is a tenet of Bida Manda's larger mission and what has, in less than four years, made it more than a mere restaurant. Though many of their staff members have been with Bida Manda since the start, the Nolinthas encourage them to chase bigger dreams. As the staff arrives just before lunch, for instance, Vanvisa discusses many of their outside interests and occupations, from one who just finished law school to another who's recently embarked on a two-month thru-hike.

Those ranks have also included at least ten Asian refugees, linked with the restaurant through the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. It's a political and personal mission for the Nolinthas, a chance to protect what Van calls "our most vulnerable population." He helps them coordinate bus schedules and encourages them to serve as emissaries for new immigrants.

"When we are hiring someone, we are not coming from a place of hiring a server or a bartender. We want to know we are capable of developing a person and to see that the time here is part of a larger process," Van says.

Plenty, which they plan to open in the space next door as early as September, is a direct reflection of that idea. It will sell flowers and books, cocktails and wine, dim sum and beer—pet projects of many of their longtime employees or closest friends, like lead bar manager Jordan Hester, who has a background in creative writing. Plenty also allowed for a reflection of home.

"In Laos, spaces are never just one thing; it's rare that a space is only used from eight in the morning to ten at night. The space breathes throughout the day," Van says. "We knew we wanted a collision of different ideas. Instead of thinking about what made sense, Vanvisa and I made the decision that the combination needed to be about the offerings we love—or that we are in love with the people behind those offerings."

In a matter of months, Vansana and Vanvisa Nolintha will finally move out of their downtown apartments. They will head east a few blocks, settling into a century-old house that they've been renovating in Raleigh's historic Prince Hall district. Vanvisa will have a yard in which her Yorkshire terrier, Spike, can play. Van wants to get a dog, too.

"We changed houses a lot when we were kids. We never really had a structure. And then it was always apartments or living with our aunts, stuff like that," says Vanvisa. "That's why we're looking forward to having something permanent here. We've moved around a lot. We're looking forward to having our own little corner, a backyard."

Vanvisa doesn't worry that the distance will make Bida Manda feel less familiar. As Plenty prepares to open, she estimates that she and her older brother will again work seven days a week, anyway, taking hour-long naps between shifts just as they did in the restaurant's salad days. More important, both brother and sister agree they've built an extended family and open home on Blount Street by sharing the concepts they learned as children.

"We grew up in a family and culture where hospitality was second nature," says a beaming Van. "Being a Laotian person, there's no better compliment than saying you're a good host. Hospitality through sharing a meal is engrained."

He pauses to explain how the Laotian words for rice, meal, connect, and purity are nearly identical and how these are tenets of what Bida Manda does.

"Looking back, the idea of opening a restaurant was never there," he continues. "But it has always been there in the sense that it was always part of our life—creating a community by sharing a meal."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A Helping of Home"


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