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Berkeley – Dara Thai Lao Cuisine – Exceptional juices & secret menu

rworange | Nov 13, 2005 11:25 PM

Think of a slushy/icee using perfectly ripe fresh tropical fruit, sherbet-like, but liquid enough to drink. Each is topped with a slice of fresh fruit. All these years lost when I could have been sitting on Dara’s outdoor patio on a warm summer night, enjoying these amazingly tasty and refreshing drinks.

The mango and the pineapple were as good as it gets. There is also fresh papaya, watermelon and cantaloupe. The server said that they sell out early and the papaya and watermelon were gone by three in the afternoon. Actually that day only 5 servings of watermelon were available.

This is not Jamba Juice sad frozen papaya etc, but lush fresh fruit.

The Dara cookbook ‘Taste of Laos’ is available for sale at the restaurant and is an excellent easy intro to understanding Laotian food. When asked if dishes in the book could be requested even if they were not on the menu, the server said yes and that their regular customers know that. If they have the ingredients in house, they will make it. Otherwise, order a day or two ahead.

Ordering off the menu, the miang kam, described in the review linked below are two small spinach leaves topped with shredded roasted coconut, dried shrimp, lemongrass, shallots, ground crispy sticky rice, a shot of lemon juice and a peanut.

Ten of these little spinach cups surround a dish of thick tamarind sauce. Top the mixture with the sauce and eat. The cookbook says these originated in the Thai palace where royalty served them as hors d'oeuvres.

The dominant taste was toasted coconut and tart citrus with the tamarind adding sweetness. It was good, but the bottom line was that it was spinach topped with coconut.

The catfish salad, laap pa duk was delicious. It was a large mound of crispy sticky rice (think rice crispies), chopped fried catfish, lemongrass, ginger, shallots, mint leaves, green onions, red chilies, fish sauce and chopped iceberg lettuce. Again the citrus flavor was strong and the lovely crispy rice was the star. It was a large serving, but the rice lightened the dish.

I can’t say which was the better catfish salad, this one or the one I had at Mittaphab. In both salads, if no one said that there was fish in the dish, I’d never guess. Dara’s was more herbs and crispy rice with the lemon juice flavor and no fish sauce flavor. Mittaphab was almost entirely chopped catfish and while I didn’t taste the fish sauce eating the dish, the flavor lingered the entire night after dinner.

The Dara cookbook seems to have some history attached to each dish, some of it sad. The intro to the catfish recipe says that Laos has many fish dishes due to “abundant ponds and rivers and bomb craters”.

The sticky rice with mango was the best version of this dessert I’ve ever had and could serve two. A half of a perfectly ripe sliced mango topped warm, sweet sticky rice in a pool of coconut milk. Paired with the fresh mango juice and you really have something.

Dara is very vegetarian friendly. Just ask the server to substitute tofu for the meat and soy sauce for the fish sauce in any dish. The book says, in fact, that Laotians were primarily Buddhists at one time and were vegetarians for religious reasons.

Other dishes from the cookbook that are on the menu include:

Poo Ja – crab cakes (the 1999 review below didn’t like them)
Nam Lao – Fresh rolls
Sin Saep – Satay – just the Thai version, I think
Kang Kao Lao – beef soup
Som Tum – Papaya salad. Think this is the Thai version
Yad Sai Makeun – Stuffed eggplant
Himapan Gai – Cashew nut chicken salad – supposedly ‘livelier’ than the Chinese version
Massamam Curry

No Lao sausage here.

There were other Lao dishes on the menu, but it wasn’t easy to pick them out since they were not specifically labeled as Lao. Ask the server. The fish dishes on the special board were mostly Lao. Other Lao dishes on the menu were:

Vientiane duck – fried 1 / 2 duck … pineapple was involved.
Grilled salmon in tamarind sauce
Moo Ka Teen – pan fried pork with crispy garlic

All three Lao restaurants gave a complementary Asian toffee with the check. It was White Rabbit at Dara.

So it seems that the rule at Lao restaurants is that there is always more than is on the menu. If you know what Laotian dishes you would like, they will make them for you.

Actually this was an eye opener for me and a question that I’ll be asking at most new restaurants, no matter what the menu. Do they make any dishes on request or that are not on the menu? Well, even In-N-Out burger has a secret menu, eh? Always ask.

They didn’t have any take out menus since they were revising the menu, adding some new ones and taking off the less popular ones. However, the option to order outside the menu is always there.

From the cookbook I’d like to try banana tree soup, described as a very traditional Lao dish. I’m backing off the idea of the ant egg omelet. Who knew that Thai and Vietnamese markets sell frozen ant eggs and the best variety of ant come from those found on mango and logan trees. Now I’m going to have to check this out. Show me the ant eggs.

When I was looking at the ant egg soup in the cookbook, it described them as having “a lovely crunchy texture and a mild sour taste … Once tasted, it is sure to become a favorite:.

Yeah, but in the intro to the cookbook she says “Tangy and full of protein, it tastes much good than it imagines”. That just seemed like code to me. It’s like saying something is interesting which usually translates as I’ll never eat it again. In fact, the author seems to have only eaten it once.

The book seems great to me who knows zilch about Laotian food. However two of the three Amazon user reviews don't share my opinion. There is a map of Laos and provinces with surrounding countries. It is easy to see why there are Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese and Burmese influences. There are some pictures of the dishes (including the spinach cups), but they have that 1950’s quality to them. Still interesting though. You know, the ant egg soup DOES look good with all those condiments.

There are pictures of some ingredients au natural like galangal, kaffir lime leaves and two types of eggplant, one of which looks like grapes.

Initially, the glossary of ingredients seemed a little too simple. Soy sauce was in there and who hasn’t heard of that? Yet I learned that si lu, used in the recipes is the Chinese rather than the Japanese type. There are three common types of soy sauce used, light, dark and mushroom. And it describes the qualities and uses of each. If you are not Asian, who knew?

The only problem is that while each dish has English and Lao/Thai names, the index only has the English names. I would like to be able to look these up by the Thai name for future reference.

So dinner was very good. Sounds like a place with a lot of potential for a chowdown some time in the future.

The review below describes the restaurant somewhat. The interior, indeed full of gold Thai grillwork and statues, is just the slightest bit worn. Yet it is still lovely and relaxing. According to the cookbook, upstairs is a traditional Lao dining room with low cushions and tables. Didn’t know it was there on my visit. There is a handicapped entrance around the corner in an alley next to Gregoire. I am guessing it hooks to the patio area, but didn’t check it out. The outside is very pretty with moss covered fountains lining the steps.

The restaurant, opened in 1992 is owned by Daovone Xayavong, More info about her background can be found by looking inside the book on Amazon.

Taste of Laos: Lao/Thai Recipes from Dara Restaurant

Old Chowhound post


Dara Thai Lao Cuisine
(510) 841-2002
(510) 841-8989
1549 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94709

Mon-Sat: 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.
Sun: 11:30 a.m.-10:00 p.m

Link: http://www.asianweek.com/1999_11_18/a...

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