Day 24: Laos
There aren’t that many people living in Laos, so I think it’s pretty damn cool that we can find some restaurants in Los Angeles that specialize in their cuisine. As for Laos as a country, it has had a difficult ride, but don’t worry. Today’s entry will be all about the food, so I’m not going to go off ranting with a bunch of information about how the United States of America dropped tons (literally) of bombs over Laos during the Vietnam War which are still killing and dismembering people today, or how Laos managed to get invaded by North and South Vietnam (don’t worry, the USA only supported one of those invasions) resulting in a civil war. I’m not going to do that. Today’s just about the food.
Vientiane Thai Laos Restaurant in Garden Grove, CA. Mr. Meatball, “Danielle” and new meal-joiner Bex come along for the forty-five minute drive. We arrive at a small restaurant in a strip mall (starting to sound familiar?) that has just three or four seating areas, depending on how large the groups are. Today there is a group of ten people eating lunch, which means the restaurant is packed. There’s about a twenty minute wait for a table, which I take as a good sign. We wander over to the nearby liquor store, which I have heard sometimes sells the highly regarded Beer Lao, but no such luck. Finally, we get inside. As we make our way through the menu and attempt to get advice from our unresponsive server, another sign of a good restaurant comes up: people from a nearby table chiming in with suggestions. Once again, an open mind and an eagerness to eat whatever is good, has proven an easy way to form allies. When somebody is excited enough about the food to want to make sure that you enjoy it, you’re usually in good hands. We heed her advice.
The first dish to arrive may be my personal favorite of the whole meal, but I’m a big sucker for noodles and soup, so when a chicken curry noodle soup arrives, it’s already got a leg up on the competition. The noodles are surprisingly soft and tender and the broth has a rich, creamy finish that is an absolute delight. Nam kao tod, the crispy fried rice with sausage, is a repeat dish from my adventures in Vietnamese food near the very beginning of the project. The dish itself can’t match the execution at Lotus of Siam, but the Lao version comes with lettuce and cilantro to make a customizable wrap. Topped with their slightly sweeter-than-usual brand of sriracha hot sauce, it creates the holy balance of sweet, sour, salty, spicy, savory and crunchy. If every meal I have for the rest of my life has all six of those components, I’ll have no reason to complain.
The chicken larb, a dish of ground spicy meat, is a little overly salty and aggressively seasoned for my taste, but wrapped up in lettuce with raw green beans, cabbage, hot sauce and a bitter green, it can balance quite nicely. Mr. Meatball remarks that with every dish he has had so far, the first bite leaves him unsatisfied, but as he eats more he really comes to like it. The fried catfish pieces in a spicy, nutty sauce, unfortunately, do not have the same fate. The sauce being tasty and the fish being crispy just can’t make up for the overpowering and excessively fishy taste of the meat itself. Luckily, the next two dishes more than make up for it and really stand out as different from their Thai neighbors: Lao sausage and beef jerky. Both take variations on well known themes and make you feel like you’re really in another country. The beef jerky is marinated in lemongrass and then fried to give it a crunchy, tough exterior that makes you work for the salty, spicy and rewarding finish. The sausage meanwhile, seems normal at first, but has a bitter finish that makes you keep going back for further analysis.
In the end, this meal is exactly what I had hoped for. Every day can’t be an epic adventure, so it’s nice to be able to cruise down the freeway with some friends, pile into an unknown, inexpensive restaurant and try some new things on a day where nothing goes wrong and everyone leaves happy. Finding some differences, however small and however I can, between Lao and Thai food is something I may never have done if not for this Personal Food Project in Blog Form. A simple day that’s all about the food, where nothing else gets in the way. I like that. I’ll take another please.
Vientiane Thai Lao Restaurant
10262 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92843
Food Breakdown: 4 non-alcoholic beverages, 2 appetizers, 4 entrees
Distance From My House: 39 miles