Viet Nam News
A welcome addition to Hà Nội’s international culinary scene is a restaurant serving Lao food, which has distinct flavours despite its similarity to Thai cuisine. Hà Hằng explains.
Over the years, major cities in Việt Nam have been reflecting their cosmopolitan nature in the culinary field, serving a variety of cuisines, but most of these are well-known ones.
French, Italian, Indian, Japanese and Thai food have become quite popular among Vietnamese foodies, but they do not get much opportunity to try lesser-known cuisines.
So, when Khao Lao – a Lao restaurant – opened its door a few weeks ago with an interesting promotion, it piqued the interest of many locals.
When I googled the restaurant’s number to book a table, I found out that anyone who reserves table online will get a complimentary portion of duck larb – a Lao meat salad said to be a “must-try” dish. A small portion of steamed sticky rice also accompanies this duck meat salad.
It was peak lunch time, just after noon, when our group of three arrived at the restaurant. As we entered it, some waiters at the entrance greeted us in chorus, saying ‘Sabaidi,’ which means ‘Hello’ in Lao.
Fishy, spicy: Tham mak hoong or Lao green papaya salad, which has a key ingredient that sets it apart from the Thai version. VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
Khao Lao is a casual dining restaurant with typical faux leather chairs, benches and booth seatings, and some large-sized photos depicting its dishes decorating the wall.
Running my eyes over the room, I saw all the tables were occupied by hungry visitors, except the one that was reserved for us.
Alongside the duck meat salad and sticky rice, we also got another complementary serving of tham mak hoong or Lao green papaya salad thanks to my friend having a membership card.
We ordered grilled pork skewers served with sticky rice, stir-fried morning glory, and ‘three kinds of mushrooms’ soup.
We were a bit disappointed when another dish that we wanted to try – dried moss – was not available, although it was listed in the menu.
Lao cuisine is quite similar to that of its Thai neighbour, so it is not surprising that the menu mentions famous Thai dishes like tom yum soup, pad Thai or the famous dessert, sticky rice with mango.
When the first dish – duck meat salad and sticky rice – was brought to our table, the restaurant’s manager also came to say hello. He said the restaurant’s name, Khao Lao, simply meant Lao food or Lao cuisine.
Dubbed the "unofficial" national dish of Laos, the duck meat salad is spicy and sour, which is typical of Lao and Thai cuisine. The tiny cubes of duck meat, well marinated with lime juice and fish sauce, and the addition of several other seasonings and herbs like dried chilli, ground roasted sticky rice, spring onions, shallots, coriander and lemongrass, made this an enjoyable dish, one that we would order again.
Flavourful chunks: Duck larb or duck meat salad – an "unofficial" national dish of Laos. VNS Photo Thúy Hằng
The green papaya salad, another popular Lao dish, is similar to the Thai version – thin papaya strips, long beans and Thai eggplant, was spicy, but there was a seasoning ingredient that set it apart from the Thai version — padaek or fermented fish sauce.
Those with sensitive noses can find this salad a bit too pungent, but the one served at Khao Lao was, understandably, less fishy, salty and spicy than the ones I’d had before in Laos.
The fermented fish sauce was also used in the ‘three kinds of mushrooms’ soup – our third dish. Compared with previous dishes, which hit our tongues with a sharp combination of spicy, sour, and salty tastes, this clear soup was a serene break. The soup, using wooden ear, straw mushrooms and white crab mushrooms, also contains chilli and lemongrass.
As a meat lover I was really excited about the grilled pork skewers served with a small basket of sticky rice and some slices of cucumbers. But the meat looked dried and I think it was a bit over-cooked as the cooks were too busy meeting the demands of many customers at lunch time. The caramelised pork was also marinated with more sugar than needed, so it was a bit too sweet for me. However, the sweet, sour and spicy sauce served with the skewers was a saviour. It was a harmony of sugar, fish sauce, hot chilies and lemon juice. It was also fragrant with different kinds of dried herbs. It paired perfectly with the pork and sticky rice. I also tested the tangy sauce with other dishes on the table. It went well with everything, the duck, the stir-fried water morning glory, and even the sticky rice.
We ended our lunch with some dessert: tapioca sweet pudding and sweet sticky rice with mango. The latter has been favourite of mine for a long time, and I was very happy with the soft and glutinous rice, the ripened, sweet mango, and the creamy coconut milk. Definitely a happy ending. – VNS
Khao Lao Restaurant
Address: 91 Nguyễn Chí Thanh St, Đống Đa Dist, Hà Nội
Tel: +84 24 71068333
Comment: Casual dining restaurant; pleasant tasting food; small portions; attentive service.
The promotion, complementary duck larb and sticky rice for those who book their tables online, is valid until August 8.