Although Laotian cuisine is not very well known in the United States, it is beginning to grow in popularity. In 2002, Oakland was introduced to its first Laotian restaurant, Vientian Café, which is still located in the residential neighborhood of Allendale.
The cafe is named after the nation’s capital and largest city. A self-proclaimed “mom and pop” restaurant, this small kitchen produces some of the best Laotian food you can find in the Bay Area.
I was first introduced to Laotian food about five years ago when I redeemed a restaurant coupon for Champa Garden in an Oakland residential neighborhood bordering Ivy Hill and San Antonio. It was there that I discovered one of the most vibrant, flavorful, and fun cuisines to eat.
So what is Laotian cuisine? It may be helpful to first understand the geographic location of Laos. Laos is located in Southeast Asia, northeast of Thailand and west of Vietnam. I noticed that the cuisine of Laos has some striking similarities to Thai food, but also notice some distinct differences.
Much of Lao cuisine is meant to be eaten with your hands, but there’s a trick to it. Once you get the hang of it, it becomes the perfect way to enjoy all that Laotian cuisine has to offer.
What you need is “sticky” rice, a glutinous rice, which is a staple in Lao cuisine and cooked in a cone-shaped bamboo steamer. When served sticky rice, you want to take a small amount with your fingers, roll it to form a ball, then flatten it out a bit to use to scoop other food.
Sai Ooa or Laotian sausage is made with a variation of ingredients including ground pork, garlic, onion, lemongrass, chili, and lemon leaves. The casing of the sausage has a nice crunch and the sausage itself bursts with flavor.
I especially like the Laotian sausage served at Vientiane Café because it is beautifully charred and offers the perfect harmony to the sticky rice.
Larb is a meat salad and the national dish of Laos. Usually, you would find larb prepared with either chicken or beef, but it can be made with other proteins. If I'm ordering other dishes with beef, I might order the chicken larb of vice versa. The meat is minced and flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, roasted ground rice, and fresh herbs.
The spiciness can range from mild to extremely hot. I like how at the Sticky Rice Cafe on International Blvd in East Oakland, you tell the chef how spicy you want your larb by requesting the number of chilis to go into the dish. We asked for two chilis and it came out to a well-balanced medium spice.
Rice Ball Salad
I did notice a few differences between the Lao style papaya and the Thai version. The Laotian version is mixed in a dark sauce made with fermented shrimp paste, which some people might call umami. It is also served with rice noodles and raw cabbage in order to cut down the heat.
The Thai version, however, is lighter in color, doesn't have a rich sauce or come with rice noodles, and usually includes chopped peanuts and fresh herbs.
Nam Kao or Rice Ball Salad is hands down my favorite Laotian dish! It is a beautiful mixture of ingredients that include deep fried rice, peanuts, coconut, scallions, shallots, mint, cilantro, lime juice, fish sauce, and dried chili peppers served with fresh iceberg lettuce.
The end result is a crispy lettuce wrap with a flavor profile that ranges from savory, tangy, and spicy that leaves me completely satisfied.
In Oakland, we are so lucky to have amazing diversity in our community and the presence of not one, but three Laotian restaurants speak to that. If you’d like to take a culinary adventure to Laos, here are the three Oakland restaurants you can try:
- Champa Garden (2102 - 8th Avenue)
- Vientian Cafe (3801 Allendale Avenue)
- Sticky Rice Cafe (2801 International Boulevard)