After Sundays disappointing lunch performance in Berkeley, I decided to try to find Oaklands Vientian Café to satisfy my longing for some good Lao/Issan food before leaving the East Bay. It was exactly where Kim said it would be on the corner of 38th and Allendale. The name is spelled without a final e. I got a parking space right in front.
While not a fancy spot, it was less of a dive than I was expecting. It even accepts credit cards, including Amex! There were only a couple other patrons when I arrived shortly after 6pm, but soon this small space was packed with hipsters and multi-generational family groups and doing a big business in take-out too. The menu offers Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese Cuisine, and the overflowing condiment tray on the table spans this diversity.
I asked my friendly waitress to point out the Lao dishes for me. They were mostly in the appetizer and salad section. I picked Nam Kao, $5.95, to start. When I had trouble deciding upon a second selection, she discouraged me, saying that one dish should be enough if I wasnt starved and I shouldnt order too much for a first visit. I didnt specify a level of spiciness, just asking my waitress to make it the way she liked it.
The nam kao was wonderful delivering all the excitement and electricity that I had hoped to find. Cold and hot temperatures contrasted with salty, sour and spicy seasonings and crispy, chewy, and soft textures. Crunchy bits of deep-fried rice blended with tender half-cooked nubs of salty and fermented sour Lao/Issan pork sausage mingled with bits of scallion, lemongrass, toasted coconut, toothsome strips of pickled pork skin, chopped roasted peanuts, and cilantro in a tangy light dressing. The base spice level was only moderate, and I did not bundle up the whole dried chili peppers with the other garnishes provided with the red leaf lettuce. Combined with the fresh mint and cilantro, the sum of the flavors and textures was very complete and satisfying. I didnt tire of it and polished off the whole plate.
For dessert, I tried the roti with sweetened condensed milk. The roti was baked with little oil, giving it a more delicate texture that was almost like a griddled flour tortilla. While I appreciated the freshness, Im not sure Id order this again.
This little spot has made a big first impression on me and Im looking forward to sampling more from the menu. What do other hounds recommend?
3801 Allendale Ave.
Monday to Sunday, 11am-9pm
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