As the name suggests, Lao serves food that owners Vonn Keobouala and Matt “Jit” Lothakoun remember from growing up in Laos. They came to the U.S. in the 1980s. They also operate the Simply Thai restaurants in Elon and Jamestown.
The link between Laotian and Thai is historic, as cross-cultural interplay has influenced these cuisines. As far as other local Southeast Asian restaurants go, if you like Vietnamese, you will probably be attracted to Lao. Flavors are usually bright, but often pungent, sour, sweet,or some combination thereof. The menu cautions that Laotian food “can be spicy.” That’s the way I like it, but caution might be in order.
The look is austere — white walls, concrete floors, unadorned tables and cafeteria-style chairs. Hard surfaces reflect sound, and music is played at higher than conversational levels. Add that to noisy parties, and you get a pretty harsh ambience. I asked to be reseated in the back, which at the time was mostly empty. A young, boisterous crowd up front seemed to feel right at home.
When we started venturing into the food, I was quite taken with Lao Sausage, made in-house from pork, lemongrass and herbs. The texture is firm, the flavor robust. Spring Rolls are fried crisp, enclosing cabbage and carrot, the mild flavor enhanced with the kind of spicy-sweet sauce that appears in a lot of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants.
Sakoo Sai Moo is unique. Tapioca dumplings enclose pickled peanuts and ground pork. These are poached and served on lettuce in individual spoons. Pieces of red pepper occupy the center of the resulting pale, round mound. (I can’t quote friend Jerry’s description in a family newspaper, but you can imagine the image.) If you take in the whole thing in one bite, you get a pop as the filling bursts through, but the texture is akin to chewing a rubber band, so cutting these in half yields a more comfortable experience that requires less exertion. A sweet sauce extends flavor.
Eight entrée soups are offered. Five are noodle preparations, with noodles made in-house. Based on a server’s recommendation, I tried Khao Piak Sen. Chicken broth enhanced with ginger and garlic hosts a choice of proteins: tofu, chicken or shrimp. I chose shrimp — seven large, fresh, deveined and properly shelled, just a little on the firm side. These noodles are made from rice.
Four other entrees are salads. Laab, ordered with beef, accents the main ingredient with spicy lime sauce. The thin beef strips were firm, producing mild flavor. We perked it up with some of the sweet-sour sauce from our first course. Lao Papaya Salad delivers more impact from strips of papaya and ginger, accented with spicy-sweet fish sauce. Sliced cherry tomatoes lend color.
I felt a bit uneasy with the price range for these ($11-$18), which seems moderate for entrees, but expensive for soups and salads, even in entrée size portions.
Aom Chicken, although not listed with the soups, is based on hot liquid — a “stew” in the menu’s terminology — which can be ordered with additional tofu or beef. We just stuck with chicken. Strips of mostly white meat join Lao eggplant, which we really liked, plus green peppers and green beans, all firm — just right for my taste.
Pompano is a wonderful white-fleshed fish, seldom seen on menus in this area. (It’s a staple in New Orleans.) Lao serves it whole, head on, fried crisp, covered with garlic and a pungent-sweet-sour paste augmented with lots of clipped green onions and sliced cherry tomatoes. The presentation bursts with color (see my blog for a photo), and every bite fulfills the promise the appearance creates. Getting through it requires a bit of work, separating flesh from bone and head, but it’s worth the effort.
Unindicted co-conspirator Anna characterized Kua Prabang as a “safe” choice. Strips of flank steak are sautéed — a little firm — scattered with red bell peppers, green beans and onions. The flavor is good, albeit rather mild, but easy to enjoy and unintimidating if you are not feeling adventurous in an unfamiliar cuisine.
Sticky rice is considered one of the standards of Laotian cuisine. I was surprised, therefore, that servers consistently recommended steamed white rice. Little matter. They both do a good job of soaking up the cooking liquids as well as softening heat.
Otherwise, service personnel provide good explanations and guidance. Deliveries are appropriately paced, but guests have to identify what goes to which position at the table.
Management has not done as good a job informing waitstaff of specials. One server told us Wednesday was half price wine night. When we returned on a Wednesday and asked in advance, the discount was confirmed. But we were later informed that Tuesday was bargain night. Thus, the discount on the first round of wines was honored, but second glasses were charged at full price.
In general, wines are well chosen to match the food, and if you don’t recognize the selections (and you probably won’t), small samples are provided. A range of beers, especially Asian, provides another good match for the food, as does Thai tea.
If I were to return to Lao, I would seek an early seating on a weeknight, to avoid some of the noise, and I would lean toward the entrees in the “block” on the menu, for flavor as well as value. But those are personal inclinations.
If you like a taste adventure, especially soup entrees, and what some people call “lively” ambience, Lao would be a good choice.