When Tee Somsnith worked in nail salons, she was always tasked with bringing a tray of food to co-workers’ parties.
“A lot of times, my friends would say, ‘Cook us this,’ ” Somsnith says. “I’ve been asked to cater at a lot of Vietnamese nail shops.”
Somsnith’s heritage is Thai and Laotian, but she’d learned how to make Vietnamese specialties while cooking in Midwestern restaurants, which don’t have exact analogues here. She realized that the Lowcountry’s relative lack of traditional southeast Asian food probably meant there were eaters beyond the nail shops who would pay for her dishes, so she recently quit her job to create Sap-Lai, a street food pop-up.
“Most of the flavor is standard to how we eat it,” Somsnith says, meaning her dishes aren’t adjusted for perceived American tastes.
While the Sap-Lai menu is perpetually in flux, since Somsnith cooks according to the weather and produce availability, recent features have included curry noodle soup, lemongrass ginger wings and Thai boat noodle soup. She’s planning this month to serve a series of lighter dishes in deference to customers’ New Year’s resolutions. Among the possibilities are a grilled beef salad with lime vinaigrette and a bean thread noodle salad. “I’m thinking I’ll bring laab back,” she adds.
Because Somsnith’s cooking until last summer wasn’t much known outside of nail salons, she told brewery owners that she was willing to pop up on their slowest nights. She’s lately made appearances at Commonhouse Aleworks, Ghost Monkey Brewery and Charles Towne Fermentory, which she now considers Sap-Lai’s unofficial home. She’s also hoping to work her way into the regular rotation at Container Bar, and says Workshop has approached her about setting up semi-permanent shop.
“I have a love of cooking more than nails, so it works out,” Somsnith says.
Still, she’s leaving her license at the nail shop, just in case eggroll interest dwindles. At this point, though, her greatest challenge is meeting demand. Somsnith frets that she’s falling behind on steam bun production.
For Sap-Lai’s current schedule, visit its Instagram account, @saplaichs.