One of my most memorable trips abroad was a month-long excursion to Laos, where I can still feel the heat from the som tum (green papaya salad) on my tongue. It was a trip that introduced me to the wonders of padaek (fermented fish sauce) and lemongrass.
Fortunately, I do not have to travel far to find these flavors here in the Bay Area, since there is a sizable Laotian community here, especially in Oakland, San Pablo and Richmond. A quick drive north or south from my home in Pleasant Hill, brings me to family-owned restaurants that serve some of the best som tum, larb (an herb-heavy meat salad) and nam khao (crispy rice salad with som moo, or fermented pork sausage). I often gravitated towards these three dishes at most of the restaurants, because I was curious about the subtle variations in each rendition, whether they had added a hint of lemongrass, a stronger presence of cilantro or a more pungent dose of fish sauce in each bite.
Traditionally, Laotian food is eaten with fingers, except for soups or noodle dishes that require spoons or chopsticks. Sticky rice is served in bamboo baskets and is eaten with your hands. The rice can be flattened lightly between your fingers and serves as a vessel for other foods like larb to ensure a swift and efficient delivery to your mouth sans any utensils.
In the Bay Area, Laotian restaurants often serve Thai food as well, as customers are more familiar with the flavors of this neighboring country. Between the two cuisines there are a lot of similarities with their ingredients (especially with dishes in Laos and Northern Thailand), but some of the distinguishing differences are that Laotian food tends to be lighter without the presence of heavy oils, the use of padaek is plentiful and sticky rice is a cornerstone of every meal.
The first thing you notice about Lao-Thai Kitchen is the intricate wood panels, colorful statues and gleaming dishware on display that help transport you to Southeast Asia. This charming family-owned spot serves up a mix of Laotian, Thai and soul food — a nod to owners Kham Daniel’s Laotian heritage and her husband Earl Daniel’s African-American background. The couple opened this restaurant as a little something to keep them busy after they retired.
Start your night off with Laotian deep-fried jerky, an appetizer that is marinated in fish sauce and served with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. One of Lao-Thai’s most popular Laotian dishes is the fragrant pork larb salad, in which a mix of minced pork (there are several protein options but the tender pork is a wise choice in soaking up the flavor), mint, cilantro and chili pepper compete for your attention. This larb made me the most nostalgic for Laos, because each bite featured a different burst of flavor, where sometimes the cilantro was the most prominent and other times there was more of a minty aftertaste. Sticky rice served in individual woven baskets provides the perfect vehicle to scoop up the larb with your fingers. The nam khao with sour som moo comes with a side of spice (you can turn it down if you prefer mild), a blend of sharp red onion, cilantro, green onion and a strong aftertaste of lemongrass that made this version stand out. If you are looking for something light yet fiery, the som tum Lao is something that should not be missed, with its shredded green papaya, homemade fish sauce and ability to be mild for those who are spice-averse (this is not always the case with this dish). The friendly, yet non-intrusive service is on point and in true Laotian style it is easy to linger awhile over your meal and not feel rushed to finish right away. Lao-Thai Kitchen is at 1406 Solano Ave. (between San Carlos and Santa Fe), Albany.
Tucked away in a nondescript strip mall that sits at the top of a mountainous incline, this restaurant has a small, but mighty selection of Laotian food amidst better-known Thai dishes. A trio of Laotian sisters mastered their mother’s recipes and lucky for us, they are willing to share them. The restaurant itself is spacious and well-prepared to handle the surge of the weekend crowd.
For the ultimate Laotian comfort food (and a typical breakfast meal), the kao piak, chicken noodle soup with cilantro, green onions, and fried shallots is a good choice for those famously foggy days. The som tum, made with freshly shredded green papaya, tomatoes, garlic, ground peanuts, shrimp paste, padaek and lime juice is a very good place to start, with its searing spiciness that lingers on your tongue long after the dish itself disappears and can be somewhat remedied by the accompanying homemade rice noodles. The larb kai with juicy minced chicken gives a good alternative to the traditional pork option, with highlights of mint, cilantro, green onion, chili pepper, lemongrass and lime juice. Make sure to eat it wrapped in the accompanying lettuce for an extra crunch. Sue’s Kitchen is at 448 Valley View Rd., Suite H, El Sobrante.
Dinnertime usually promises a wait at Champa Garden, a long-time, local favorite that is hidden away in a residential neighborhood. With a Beerlao (Laotian beer, of course) in hand, though, the wait does not seem so painful. Before you know it, you will be seated at your table with a quick secession of delicious dishes making their way towards your table. The Champa Sampler is a must with its excellently executed nam khao that features the ideal ratio of crispiness for the rice and a good balance of cilantro and lime that made it one of my favorite versions; sai oua (deeply spicy Laotian sausages infused with plenty of lemongrass) and fried imperial rolls served with a sweetened fish sauce that is highly addictive. Make sure to pace yourself, since this is just the beginning.
The classic Lao staple of chicken larb is done well with a generous helping of crisp raw onions and the sharp tang of cilantro that helps this dish stand out, and best of all can be made mild or scorching depending on your spice tolerance (a unique touch since not all larb is heavily spiced). The kao soy soup with fermented beans, minced chicken, cabbage and plenty of hofun (flat wide noodles) to soak up all that flavor is the perfect antidote to those chillier nights. Champa Garden is at 2102 Eighth Ave. (between 21th and 22st), Oakland.
That Luang Kitchen
A wave of delicious aromas greets you on the street right before you enter That Luang Kitchen — a dead giveaway that you are in the right place. The unassuming exterior of this family-owned grocery-turned-restaurant gives way to a colorful interior and the sounds of Lao being spoken by the primarily Laotian clientele. A second dining area doubles as a banquet hall complete with a disco ball and there is pre-packaged food in the back for take-away.
The spicy som tum is a popular starter and comes with tomatoes, carrots, a side of cabbage and a healthy dose of fish sauce. Beware that “medium spicy” here can be a shock to the system for those who have a low tolerance, since this was one of the spicier versions I have experienced. The mok pla (steamed catfish in a banana leaf) is a soft, flaky fish with prominent notes of dill, lemongrass and chili pepper and comes with jaew maak len, a chili and roasted tomato relish not to be missed. Order a Beerlao to wash it all down and you will feel like you are in Laos right in the middle of the East Bay. That Luang Kitchen is at 1614 23rd St. (between Bush and Sutter), San Pablo.
A truly local spot, Vientian Café operates out of a family’s lime green home, where it stands out in a quiet residential neighborhood. The bright exterior matches the lively interior, where it easy to forget you are a customer and instead feel like a guest (literally) at someone’s home. The Laotian items are easy to spot among the Thai and Vietnamese dishes, since most of them come on a separate Lao specialties menu.
The sai oua is fragrant and flavorful with a strong presence of lemongrass and a touch of spiciness that compliments the crispiness of the skin well. On the other hand, if you are a vegetarian, the mok nor mai (steamed bamboo shoots in banana leaves with pungent Laotian herbs) is a great alternative. The nam khao is one of the more memorable dishes, with its crispy rice that is noticeably crispier than other versions I have had (which also means it has more oil), and the distinct hints of cilantro and green onion and savory bits of sour pork sausage. Make sure to wrap up a bit of the nam khao with the lettuce from the provided basket of fresh herbs. The som tum, with its intense fish sauce flavor as the star of the dish, is something that should not be overlooked for those who like Laotian food to leave their lips tingling long after the last bite. Vientian Café is at 3801 Allendale Ave. (between 38th and 39th), Oakland.