Welcome to Food/Drink Week at Milwaukee Record, brought to you by Third Space Brewing. From May 13 through May 20, belly up and enjoy adventurous, odd, and elaborate coverage of all things edible and drinkable in Milwaukee and beyond.

Alex Hanesakda is unable to sit down. He has a restless spirit about him, and a desire to really nail the flavors that were taught to him by his family and share them with the community. “I want to be able to provide a fine dining experience for people who don’t usually get the ability to go out and get one. Instead of them going to seek one out, I will bring it to them,” he says.

Having this mission clear in his head, Alex began his culinary career touring the neighborhoods of Milwaukee with “Ubon,” the smoker he and his father built and used over the years, named after the refugee camp in which Alex was born. Living on the north and south side of Milwaukee put Alex in touch with other communities of color, particularly ones where b-boy breakdancing was going strong. Hip-hop culture was calling Alex and through its improvisational nature, Alex found a way to blend the cooking styles he had learned with his family and apply it to a short order style.


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In 2014, Alex opened his first brick and mortar restaurant in Racine, SapSap. “Sap sap,” which is Lao for “nom nom,” became a popular restaurant and, through word of mouth, garnered attention in Milwaukee as well. The two menu items that sold out quickly were the fried chicken banh mi and “mammas’s egg rolls,” a recipe that has stood the test of time in Alex’s family.

SapSap closed in 2022, but Alex has continued to cook, taking his staples on tour around the city via pop-ups. Currently, a limited-menu version of SapSap is housed in the Neighborhood Kitchen at 8103 W. Tower Ave. And on May 17, SapSap will celebrate a soft opening at the new Havenwoods Taproom and Beer Garden, located at 5840 N. 60th St. HavenwoodsTBG is positioned right behind Havenwoods State Forest, Wisconsin’s only urban state forest. SapSap plans to serve there at least two days per week.

The story of Alex Hanesakda begins in Laos, where his parents lived an idyllic life until his father fought on the American side against Vietnam. “My family fought against the Pathet Lao, a communist group in Laos during Vietnam. It became known as ‘the secret war’ on Laos,” Alex explains.

When the American side pulled out, the family had to flee to Thailand, and emigrated between there and Laos until a relative told them about Milwaukee. As refugees, Alex’s parents moved to the midwest burg looking to give their son a life where war torn streets were not a part of everyday life. Growing up on the north side put him in touch with many cultures, and the Asian presence was very strong.

“Asian culture tends to be very insular. A lot of people don’t realize that the far north side is where a lot of the Hmong, Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese populations are,” Alex says. “We lived in Burlington, but since the majority of Lao families lived in Milwaukee, we would go up there every weekend. We assimilated quite well, since there were a lot of other jungle Asians around.”

“Jungle Asians” is a term I haven’t heard before, but Alex elaborates on this for me. “‘Jungle Asians’ is exactly what it sounds like,” he laughs. “Asian folks from the tropical climates of southeast Asia, where the culture is more working class and where we are darker in skin tone.”


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After a long conversation about stocks (broths, not imaginary money), hip-hop, and parks, Alex leaves me with something important he wants included in this piece. “A very important mission of mine is to activate our neighborhoods through food. Food is a weapon. I want everyone to bear witness to its power as a conduit for conversation and change. It is the great connector and I want to use it to uplift our communities. There is no art quite like it.”


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About The Author

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Juan Miguel Martinez is a writer from the south side of Milwaukee. He only writes until he can land a role as the mechanic friend of the handsome lead in a telenovela. His favorite movie is Repo Man.