The PAHGOHALHISOEFTASASFS* recently wended its way to Saint-Laurent borough for dinner at Ban Lao Thai (930 Décarie, a block from the Côte Vertu metro station, 514 747-4805).
The decor’s pretty par for the course: peach-coloured walls decorated with photos, pictures, artwork and artifacts, a television looping Thai music videos, standard-issue chairs and tables. The front is given over to large windows and a terrace, which had escaped my notice on my only other visit (in the dead of winter several years ago; I do remember the walls being turquoise) and wasn’t in use this summer eve due to the rain. Unusually for a family-run southeast Asian establishment, the resto has an open kitchen, though our view was blocked by a divider wall. The entire place, including the bathroom, was spotlessly clean.
The menu’s fairly long -- 87 items -- even if about half is variations on a theme: rice with sautéed chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) in spicy sauce with basil; rice with sautéed chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) and vegetables; rice with chicken (or pork or beef or seafood or fish) in sweet and sour sauce; etc. Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indonesian influences are evident. A little wary of pan-Asianism, we focused on the Laotian section of the menu -- a wise move, it turned out, as those dishes generally proved the most interesting of the evening.
In the order served:
> Pâte de poisson thaïlandaise ($3.50)
We assumed the name was a poor translation and these would be fish cakes. Nope. Fish paste spiced with galangal and lemongrass, formed into three flat pucks and deep-fried. The rubbery texture and lack of crisp crust took some getting used to but the flavour wasn't without appeal. Served with a sweet, tangy red sauce.
> Salade de papaye style laotien (pâte de crabe et crevette) ($8.50)
We told the server we wanted fiery and fiery we got (the only really hot dish of the evening). Otherwise, a disappointment, and an expensive one at that. The papaya was limp, watery and bland, the crab paste AWOL.
> Poisson frit ($10-$16)
Very good. A whole gutted tilapia, scaled but not skinned, deep-fried to a rich bronze. Delectably crisp skin, chewy but not dry flesh. The rolly polly fish heads were said to be overdone, the price to pay for corporal perfection. Served with a salty fish sauce-based dipping sauce and, a recurring theme, sliced cucumbers.
> Saucisses style laotien ($9.50)
Wow. Now we’re talking. Slices of homemade pork sausages not unlike a Toulouse in size and grind, though the similarity stops there. Perfumed with galangal and lemongrass. The filling was moist and succulent, the casing brown, crisp and ungreasy, quite the trick given the links’ fat content. Served on a bed of lettuce and bean sprouts. Far and away the best dish of the evening. Worth a special trip.
> Riz avec poulet farci à la vapeur (feuilles de lime et de basilic, citronelle, oignon, aubergine) ($8.50)
Shredded chicken combined with eggplant, onion and herbs, placed in a bowl and steamed. Unusual texture -- due partly to the cooking method, partly to the eggplant -- and dominated by the keffir lime and lemongrass. Best when first served; didn’t cool well, the texture becoming sodden and the herbs taking on a medicinal edge. A fish version is available. Came with decent steamed rice.
> Nouilles de riz sautées au fruits de mer et légumes ($9.50)
The seafood (squid, a few shrimp and a chunk or three of fish) was meh but the rice noodles and bok choy had great texture and there was lots of umami going on.
> Boeuf séché ($9)
Too thick to be jerky-like. Very dry and chewy. Tasted mainly of beef with perhaps a little oyster or soy sauce and some sugar. Paradoxical: not immediately appealing yet hard to resist.
> Poulet au cari jaune servi sur nouilles ($8.50)
Made with commercial curry powder, we guessed. Tasted more Chinese or Japanese than Thai. A little soupy-gooppy. No *éclat*. A disappointment for those expecting a classic yellow chicken curry but OK in a comfort food kind of way.
> Saucisses style laotien
See above. So good we had to order a second plate.
> Riz sucré et mangue (3 x $2.50)
Slices of perfectly ripe mango and a small, dense log of sticky rice that wasn’t very sweet or coconut milky but was intriguingly flecked with red beans. Moreish.
One chile-adverse diner ordered a main for himself -- a tofu and vegetable stir-fry at $7.50 -- that he said was good.
The damage? Divided by seven, just over $20 a person, including taxes and tip.
While Ban Lao Thai doesn’t deliver the throat-throttling thrills of Tapicoa Thé or the succession of perfection found at Shahi Palace, its homey allure is undeniable. What’s more, it’s a BYO, again with clunky glasses and no ice buckets, not that that interfered with our enjoyment of Bernard-Massard’s 2004 Riesling from Luxembourg’s Mosel valley ($18.15 at the SAQ), a light, refreshing, dry wine filled with lime and mineral and stylistically straddling the border between Alsace and Germany, or the richer and slightly off-drier 2006 Riesling Waipara Valley from New Zealand’s Mount Cass Vineyards ($19.35). Both lent credence to the claim that Riesling is the best wine for Thai-Laotian food.
*Peripatetic ad hoc group of hounds and lurker-hounds in search of “ethnic” food that’s affordable, spicy and served family-style