By Ross Perkins, Foodable Contributor
Southeast Asian restaurants are in nearly every strip mall, food court, and small town across the country. Diners looking for comfort food with a bit of flavor flair don't have to travel far for Vietnamese pho or Thai drunken noodles. But Southeast Asia still has some hidden culinary gems that Americans will gobble up once they have the opportunity. And the next culinary gem from that region is Laotian cuisine.
For the Love of Laos
Laos is a landlocked country in Southeastern Asia that isn't well-known, and calls China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma) its neighbors. The influence of the French, who colonized Laos, remains strong with cafés along many major streets. The country's capital, Vientiane, is a sleepy government city, and Luang Prabang in the north is a backpacker’s haven and the de facto cultural capital of Laos.
But the country's food culture is something that deserves to be explored because Laotian cuisine is not only a fusion of several cultures — its dishes are already somewhat familiar to American consumers. For lovers of Thai food, many of the Laotian dishes will create culinary déjà vu. As a matter of fact, with so much overlap with Thai cooking, many Laotian restaurants in the U.S. are actually Thai-Laotian restaurants.
Laotian vs. Thai Cuisine
However, there are differences between Laotian and Thai cuisine. For one, the main staple with pretty much any Laotian meal is sticky rice. Another popular dish is larb, a minced meat dish. When it comes to protein, meat in Laos is often grilled to give it a smoky quality. And while Thai cuisine uses coconut milk to give its dishes sweetness and body, Laotian cooks love incorporating padaek (fermented fish sauce) to give its dishes a distinctive flavor.
When biting into many Laotian dishes, consumers should expect spice — lots of spice. During a recent WAMU interview, Chef Seng Luangrath of local Laotian-Thai restaurant Bangkok Golden explained that "Laotian cuisine is spicier than its Thai counterpart. What's 'spicy' at a Thai restaurant is considered 'mild' at a Lao restaurant."
Spice isn't the only flavor that will land a punch in diners' mouths. Another flavor is one that's not often found in other cuisines: sour. Kaffir lime is a popular ingredient within Laotian cooking, so while eaters are used to the sweet-spicy combo in Thai dishes, the spicy-sour combination is quintessentially Laotian.
A Laotian Invasion
It's this mixture of the familiar with the exotic that's helping to bring Laotian cuisine into the spotlight. In the D.C. metro area, the recently mentioned Bangkok Golden has already received plenty of media buzz regarding its Laotian dishes. Riding on the momentum from the restaurant's critical successes, Chef Seng Luangrath, who is an ambassador of sorts for Laotian cuisine, decided to bring Laotian food from the D.C. suburbs to the city itself. She is planning to open Thip Khao, the city's first Laotian restaurant in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood, this fall.
This trend of Laotian food becoming more prevalent isn't relegated to the Beltway. While the D.C. region has about 4,000 people of Laotian descent, the epicenter of the Laotian food movement is California, home to the largest Laotian community in the country. In California, there are many restaurants serving Laotian cuisine, including Tai Kadai Kitchen in Los Angeles County, Vientiane Thai Restaurant in Orange County, Dara's Authentic Thai & Lao Cuisine in Berkeley, and That Luang Kitchen Lao Cuisine, also in the Bay Area. California has a long history of being a food trend incubator and has made countless trends go mainstream. (Think of how eaters line up for food trucks and the growth of appreciation for fresh fast casual foods.) So why would Laotian cuisine be any different?
Overcoming the Obstacles
The growth of Laotian restaurants and Laotian cuisine is happening on both the east and west coasts, but for it to gain traction, there are still obstacles ahead. The main challenge Laotian cuisine faces isn't that consumers aren't familiar with the ingredients or the dishes, but that there is still a knowledge gap among consumers. They don't know what Laotian food has to offer.
This problem isn't novel. Vietnamese cuisine closed that knowledge gap; Thai cuisine did it, as well. And Laotian cuisine can do it, too. It will just take some time for Laotian cuisine to trickle down from select urban enclaves to cities and towns across the country. In a few years, diners will be requesting larb kai just as comfortably as they order pad thai.