Notes from Laos last month (February 2007). The culinary highlight was perhaps the least exotic: the enormous pleasure of a simple dipping sauce with sticky rice. Time and again, when I sought out other dishes that were famous or noteworthy, I was content, but not delighted. But several times, and most notably in two of the remotest settings of my trip, I was completely bowled over by just sticky rice and a fish-sauced based jaew (sauce), occasionally, as in Bolikhamsay province, accompanied by awesome bits of pork sliced off of a big slab. It truly was a splendid example of jaews serving their purpose of making you fill up just on sticky rice.
Otherwise, this was not as fabulous a food trip overall as some other visits to SE Asia. Maybe that's because I spent more time in rural areas, which pretty much means foe; or that I know the food better and expect more now; or that I have romanticized my first meals there 9 years ago. Or maybe I wasn't focused, lucky or skilled. Anyway, I certainly had good food, but the proportion of misses to hits felt higher than, say, a trip in Nan and Loei in Thailand two years earlier. Details for those heading that way:
The Malee restaurant we've praised here exists in name, but is no more. Or it's like the child you knew who is now the unrecognizably trendy teenager. It moved to a much spiffier wooden place a few doors up the street towards Wat Manoron from Phou Vao. Their focus is DIY bbq, all the rage these days, with a small menu of not terribly exciting other things. The grills are very nicely done for what they are - the meat had no flavor at all, but it came with very abundant, fresh vegetables and spices to make the soup. We also got a fried watercress salad (yum pak boong kob), one of the most awesome food moments of the trip. It needed much more heat given its sweetness, but even still, it was just drenched with lemongrass, the strong flavor of the greens, and fried goodness.
For Mekong riverside meals, one was a hit, one was a miss. The restaurant that I think is part of the Viradesa GH -- picked at random because we were there and needed to eat - turned out to be one of our best laap- papaya salad - sticky rice meals of the trip. View Khem Khong, which gets great reviews, was one of the most wretched meals - inexplicable ketchup coated noodles -- and an okay, but not really interesting, mok gai (chicken steamed in banana leaves).
Lao food is served in upscale surroundings at Tamnak Lao and 3 Nagas, both on the tourist strip. Neither thrilled me very much. At Tamnak Lao, ao larm was overwhelmed by dill, not at all balanced by other herbs or ingredients. I liked the kai pen but my partner thought it was too greasy (it was, but I thought in a good way), but it always works well with jaew bong (what doesn't?). Whatever else we had was unremarkable, although there was a very nicely caramelized banana upside down cake for dessert.
3 Nagas is more upscale, with prices to match. I admire their excellent menu of Lao food, and appreciate that they are giving a lot of customers an education about local cuisine, including a huge tasting menu for about $19 (like, I said, high prices!). My quick lunch was okay, but not exciting. Avoid the stuffed bamboo or stuffed lemongrass - greasy, overstuffed renditions. The sai oua was not too flavorful, and married very well with the very good jaew bong. The pork and banana bud salad was fine but the banana buds got completely lost. Maybe others will fare better; do go peruse the meu.
The Apsara, where we stayed (gorgeous place), did sai oua equally as well as a watercress/blue cheese salad, but for the most part, I think of it as western food with occasional Lao-inflections. The chicken with greens follows the ao larm concept, and works fairly nicely, but could be a bit boring. The braised pork belly with star anise (our room was over the kitchen and I could smell the star anise broth cooking all day...mmm), a signature dish, is a very good cut of pork belly, extremely rich and overly sweet. Good wines, great bar, but be very clear with the bartenders about your cocktail terms - the chic surroundings may seem like anywhere in the world, but you are still in Laos.
The tourist saturation of the peninsula, even off the farang drag, meant it felt easier to find bad, expensive western coffee and breakfast than to find good, cheap Lao coffee and breakfast. Even only a few blocks south near Wat Manorom, it was easy to walk out and get a glass of insanely sweet and excellent Lao coffee and noodles in the morning. On the peninsula, I had to scrounge around, with little luck. However, morning coconut custards - what are they called? those little khanoms made in a specially shaped tin, shaped into 2" small saucer shapes? - were everywhere, and were completely addictive. Coffee in the western places was pricy and bad. In particular, Scandinavian Bakery - sort of an institution back in the day - had terrible coffee. Avoid.
Best breakfast was khao soi at Talaat Phousi, the main market. This is not the Chiang Mai dish, although they overlap. It was noodle soup with moderate spice, a thin orange-ish broth, and a mix of shredded meat and spices thrown on top. It was very, very good. There are plenty of other stalls in that back part of the market, and I highly recommend foraging there, although it can be hot and there are a lot of flies. In the produce section, there was plenty of fresh produce and little bags of condiments, most typically jaew bong but also tamarind and eggplant sauces, if you looked.
The night market in the alley behind the Ancient Luang Prabang hotel is probably one of the few in SE Asia where I've heard a tourist loudly yelling in English to a vendor that they want their "order" after they've found a seat, and after they've eaten their appetizer and THEN they want the vendor to bring their order over to them... ah, the new Luang Prabang. I didn't luck out with anything special here. The grilled foods were being re-heated, so lost a lot of succulence. Found one curious dish - a bright spring green, smoothly pureed and slippery, like okra or mouloukhiya, but with virtually no taste.
I'll have to do a separate write up about the meal at Tamarind, since it was a chowhound's delight.
Thakhek: not a great food scene, from what I briefly could tell. We ate at the busiest riverside place, and they took me at my word when I said I could eat spicy -- the papaya salad was blistering hot and fishy - well done, but crazily hot, which was sort of more fun psychologically than physically. The rest of the food on offer was mostly ultra-grilled black meats, fish and duck, which ranged from okay to a little gross.
Gnommorat: This was so weird. This is where they are building part of the huge Nam Theun dam, so this out of the way place is now a giant work camp, with two copycat nice restaurants (all new, wood walkways, tons of tables). I wouldn't have picked it, but Lao companions wanted to. It was so bizarre to see English menus wiith "steaks" and pan-Asian dishes, yet they had no sticky rice... or laap... or even foe... or Vietnamese food, if that's what they were aiming for. The basic stirfries - pak boong, chicken and ginger, cabbage - were nicely done, but the whole scene is just too weird.
Sala Hinboun: if you're visiting KongLo cave, this is the only actual restaurant for now (mad development here, it will change). The food is very fresh and while it is competently prepared, it is deeply modified for western tastes, so do NOT get your hopes up. "Chicken with spicy sauce" just means chicken with excellent basil but very few chilies. The haw mok was quite nice too, good lemongrass, but not as complex as I'd hoped. This is probably a better place to indulge any western cravings you may have, though unfortunately I did not have any at the time, or stick to very simple things.
In Phonsavan, we had my birthday feast at our hotel, the Maly. It's not aiming to be traditionally Lao, but has a very extensive fusion menu and uses very fresh ingredients ("nouvelle Lao," the owner called it). The "duck stew" (must order in the morning) was braised duck in a sweet sticky sauce. The sauce was mild, but the duck was probably the best duck I ever had--perfectly braised-- and the sauce worked beautifully with accompanying steamed cabbage. Spicy veggie curry was also very good. Extraordinary service at this place - lighting the little candles made out of old cluster bombs, pouring wine for my birthday, getting a cake from the market with my name and lurid blue icing flowers. The cake was wretched, but who cares?
They also impressed me with simple fried rice the night we arrived really late, filthy, cold and hungry. Maybe it was just the cold and hunger, because I've never thought this way about fried rice, and rarely order it, but it was really great. It made me think that somebody in the kitchen actually cares about the food. I don't think the Maly folks think we tourists want to eat local food, but I bet they could be convinced. I think the owner's wife would also arrange a cooking lesson, if you are staying long enough and she has time.
Must to avoid: Phonekeo, on the main strip. I went because my book said it had a huge range of local food, but that's completely wrong - it is just ordinary food horribly prepared. The laap was like Asian Hamburger Helper, completely swimming in grease. There is just no way laap should end up in this situation.
Muang Kham: little restaurant at the main crossroads, across from the bus station and Kaysone statue, behind a fruit stand, has really tasty stew pots, if you don't mind risking food that has been sitting out (a far bigger health hazard than raw veggies). We had an excellent bamboo shoot soup/curry - really strong tasting, enough heat to stand up to the fermentation. Also a great pak som, a green, and a richly tasty, though not spicy, pork belly stew.
In Khammouane, crashed one night in a village below the Nakai plateau. Our lovely host was a good cook - dinner and breakfast were chicken soup, and I have no idea how it cooked so quickly. He'd put the water on the coals to boil, and then killed the chicken, skinned it, and I assume cut it up but I didn't look/see, went and cut some herbs from his garden pots, and in a few minutes, we had an excellently flavored, delicately gingered chicken broth. It was served with sticky rice, of course; a fantastic jaew that had sprightly fresh green herbs in it; and most intriguingly, a cold dish of some bitter crunchy root that looked like bamboo, but tasted completely different - quite bitter, but still succulent. He said it was from the woods, and that they eat it a lot, but I didn't remember the name.
Another night in Luang Prabang, I cooked ao larm and a few other dishes at the Vanvisa GH. Mrs. Vandara, who runs the place, is known as a foodie. She wasn't around, so I cooked with her niece. I wouldn't say it was a cooking "class," but more just hanging out in the kitchen, slowing things down with my bad Lao kitchen skills (insanely dull knives and no cutting board--just slicing in your hand), communicating as best we could (she thought I spoke more Lao than the, like, 20 words I know). The ao larm used some interesting techniques, and TONS of greens and herbs I catalogued, but don't know how to translate. I am not sure how to replicate this without them, since they offered a huge amount of vegetal fullness and bitterness. To round out the meal, we made gaeng om, which seemed like a Thai tom jeud--a clear soup with pork and lots of greens and bit of celery; and eggs stirfried with moo som, or sour pork. This is like naem--raw pork mixed with its own skin for crunch and garlic and salt, and wrapped in a banana leaf to ferment for 2 days. It is not a taste I like - in the same way I don't like corned beef or pastrami - but stirfried with tons and tons of caramelized shallots, whole garlic cloves (about 10 of them), chilies and eggs, it was a perfect salty complement. All told, a really fun evening.
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