When my friends mentioned that Charlotte has one of the largest Hmong and Montagnard populations in the country, I had to go in search of the food. You see, I’ve made the hunt for Hmong eats a focus of visits to Fresno CA and eaten Laotian there as well. The San Francisco area’s East Bay region is home to a sizeable Lao population also with several restaurants representing the food and I’ve been working my way through them. When I read this article in Food & Wine a few months ago where the author laments the lack of Lao restaurants in the US, I’d stepped it up even more.
My hosts had planned lunch for me at the Charlotte City Club for the view and crab cakes, but I asked that we find some banh mi first. After New Century, http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/783820 , we looped around to Pho Daravan toward the front of the mall. An incongruous moniker, Daravan is not Vietnamese and sounded more Lao to me. I got excited when I saw a poster for the Hmong festival in the window. Also posted were photos of an oyster mushroom laab and Laotian sausage not listed on the menu. I went inside and asked if the Sai Oua (Lao sausage) was homemade. Yes, was the answer. Bingo!
Turns out the owners are Lao and the lady explained to me that they also serve Thai and Vietnamese food. I would have like a bit more char from the grill, but that’s a teensy nitpick. Medium-grind pork studded with savory herbs and spices and not over-sweetened, the sliced sausage was served up with very fresh garnishes of cucumber, mint and cilantro. These were quite delicious with the fragrant, steamed sticky rice.
Who doesn't love freshly fried eggrolls? Different than the Viet variety, even though listed as Chao Gio (Imperial rolls) on the menu, the version here’s served up with Vietnamese style dipping sauce. Rolled in rice paper wrappers and about 8" long, these were filled with chicken, crab and shrimp but no discernable vermicelli. Beautiful golden brown and ultra-crackly wrappers were greaseless and delicate. I’ve never seen any eggrolls this long and skinny before and I so wish I could have some for lunch today.
Carol doesn't eat much red meat, so “lap” made with king oyster mushrooms turned out to be just the ticket. Lap (aka larb, laab, laap or lop) in the Laotian style is made with the darker, funkier fish sauce, and this certainly was although it didn’t pool on the bottom of the plate like some versions. The freshness and quality of the mung bean sprouts impressed me. Fat and stubby the way the Lao people like them, the leaf, bean and root threads were pulled off to leave just the juicy “silver”. The lap also featured plenty of toasty rice powder, which I prefer. It did have too much cilantro for us and it was not the more mature, feathery and aromatic flowering stage giving the dish a somewhat bitter edge. Seeing the dish served with iceberg lettuce rather than the cabbage I prefer, I had to laugh. I’d been eating coleslaw at just about every meal, and this was one of the few where cabbage did not grace the table.
We had also wanted to try banh mi here, but there was no bread available to make the sandwiches. The rest of the Lao sausage went home to Paul. He pronounced it the best of the Asian flavors we’d brought home from the mall and he checked more than once to be sure that his wife would be able to locate these places again.
Other typical Lao dishes on Pho Daravan’s menu that I wish I could have tried include the Seen Sa Woon (beef jerky, if it’s fried fresh to order), Grilled beef tongue, or Yum Lao salad made with beef. I hope that the ‘hounds in Charlotte will give it a try and post their thoughts.
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The Hmong Summer Festival will be held at the Hickory American Legion Fairgrounds located at 1127 W US 70 Hwy, Newton NC 28658 from Saturday, May 28 to Monday, May 30, 2011.
Montagnard Dega Association
Among the Hmong
Pho Daravan Restaurant
4520 N Tryon St Ste 6, Charlotte, NC 28213
Charlotte City Club
121 W Trade St #3100, Charlotte, NC 28202
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