In Laos, when someone wants to emphasize what they’re saying, they repeat the word twice. That’s how Vilada Khammahavong (known to everyone as “Vi”) came up with the name KowKow for her food truck — khao, pronounced “kow,” meaning either rice or food in her parents’ native tongue. And from my experience at KowKow, I can tell you that the food is AwesomeAwesome.
I discovered KowKow through social media when I saw a photo of the most magnificent-looking ice cream cone — with an actual waffle as the cone — and promptly followed the instructions to find KowKow’s Valentine’s Day pop-up (hosted by another Motif favorite, Hometown Poké).
It was like no ice cream experience I’d ever had. The cone is made from a folded bubble waffle, also known as an egg waffle, which looks like an inverted honeycomb, with soft chewy “bubbles” connected by a thin crispy lattice. On this particular day, Vi created red velvet waffles, and I ordered one with a scoop of strawberry ice cream, which Vi shaped into a rose using the ice cream scoop, topped with white and gold sprinkles. I suddenly had the most Instagrammable ice cream I’ve ever eaten.
I asked Vi when she knew she wanted to start this food truck, and she laughed in the way that suggested a much longer story. “I was a junior in college when I first had the idea. I wasn’t a business major or a culinary student, so I ended up having to learn as I went. It was a steep learning curve.”
“So … what were you studying? Pre-med?” I joked.
“Yes,” she says bashfully.
Vi was a US history major, and after graduating a year early, she took the MCATs. She successfully gained entry into medical school, which she is currently deferring to follow this passion.
“I wanted to see if I could do it — I just had a gut feeling that this is something that would make me happy, and that I’d be good at it,” she said, noting that it’s her gut that’s helped her decisions along the way. For instance, the vision she originally had for the food truck was to serve Lao noodle soup called Khao piak sen.
“I grew up eating it — it’s a comfort food, similar to chicken noodle soup here in the States. My mom and I used to make the noodles by hand,” she said, and she described how, unlike ramen or pho, which can be heavy or greasy, this soup is light and hearty. “I could easily eat three or four bowls of it.”
This is one of the reasons why I like her: Not only will she eat multiple bowls of soup, but she will also double fist ice cream cones, something I noticed on her Instagram story. “Oh, I love ice cream,” she confirmed.
“So is that why you switched from soup to ice cream?” I asked.
Her reasons were more logistic than that. When she saw her renovated food trailer, she had a gut feeling the noodles wouldn’t work within the confines of that space. “Then I saw a photo of a place in London that was serving bubble waffles with ice cream. I grew up eating bubble waffles in Chinatown, in Boston, and I thought, ‘No one in Providence has bubble waffles…I could do that.’” Thus, the first KowKow offering was launched, and in September 2018 she had her grand opening.
“It was crazy. People lined up. I had been afraid it would just be family and friends, and I remember thinking, ‘People are actually coming!’”
She and one friend managed all of the orders. “I felt bad because customers were waiting,” she said. Granted, one of the waffle-makers broke that day, but generally there is a careful process to creating these beautiful cones. The wait, in my opinion, is well worth the payoff!
Her menu features six staple cones, from Oreo Factory to Graham Canyon. Vi’s favorite, and the one I most recently enjoyed, is Berry Nutty, a waffle cone made with Warwick’s Black Raspberry Ice Cream, a condensed milk drizzle, blackberries and walnuts.
“One important thing to also know about KowKow is that after every 1,000 orders, I pledge to make a donation to charity,” she told me. After the first landmark, she donated 1,000 canned goods to the RI Food Bank, and she’s coming up on another 1,000. “I’ve been thinking of creating a special Unicorn cone — with fondant ears and a horn — and offering ‘pay as you can,’ with all proceeds going toward She’s the First.”
She’s the First is a nonprofit organization that fights gender inequality through education by supporting girls who will be first in their families to graduate from high school. “I’ll match donations up to $500,” she added.
And as for the future?
“We’ll see how this year goes. My hope is to someday have a brick-and-mortar, and maybe host dinners that are communal, or family style, like Lao food is traditionally served. It would be more experiential,” Vi said, which is my favorite way to dine.
If you haven’t yet tried KowKow’s ice cream cones, this summer is the perfect time to do so (and be sure to look for the unicorn!). I may not know what Vi’s future holds, but I do know that ice cream is just what the doctor ordered.