Lao/Thai cuisine: Get the best of both worlds
Special to the Seattle Times
A message on a popular restaurant discussion Web site caught my eye. The author praised the fare at Viengthong, a venerable Lao/Thai restaurant at the foot of Beacon Hill, but doubted it was the kind of place that would ever earn a review in the newspaper. How could I resist?
The Internet foodie is now wrong about the press's conspiracy of silence, but she was right about the rest: Except for the nondescript strip-mall setting, everything about this family restaurant is charming, and the Lao and Thai food is unusual and delicious.
Overall, the menu is more Thai than Lao, but the average Thai restaurant menu has plenty of Lao-derived dishes as well. The interchange is unsurprising not only because the two countries share a border but because Laos spent a century under Siamese rule. Larb, the tangy chopped meat or fish salad, originated in Laos, as did som tam, a green papaya salad (Viengthong's, $6, is crisp and slightly briny, and therefore excellent).
A Thai restaurant might bill these dishes as Isaan, or northeastern Thai, but most Lao would claim them as their own. Still, it's unsurprising to see phad thai ($6.50) appear on Viengthong's menu, and they do it well, firm noodles with both shrimp and pork.
The menu's noodle soups come from across Laos' other border. Laos (and those who know their Vietnam War history haven't likely forgotten this) is adjacent to Vietnam, which is why pho ($4.25 small, $4.75 large) is also available at Viengthong. Nor is sukiyaki ($5.75 small, $6.25 large) a surprise: This Japanese beef stew has perhaps found its most receptive audience, outside of Japan, in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the fundamental difference between Lao and Thai food is the Lao use of sticky rice. Like the Italian short-grain rice used for risotto, sticky rice is high in amylopectin, which makes it chewy and cohesive.
It's steamed and served in woven bamboo warming baskets. Each basket ($2) is theoretically enough to serve two, but if you like sticky rice as much as I do, you'll keep reaching in for more, rolling the rice into a ball, and mopping up the sauce from your entrees. You can also flatten the rice and use the resulting "pancake" to pick up pieces of food or to slide a piece of satay off its skewer. Sticky rice at its best has a characteristic nutty flavor and springy consistency, and Viengthong's is exemplary.
Our server, an efficient young woman with ankle-length hair, was knowledgeable about the food and always seemed to know when we needed something, this despite the fact that she was the only server on duty and was also looking after a table of celebrating (but scrupulously polite) teenagers.
The décor is as eclectic as the food. In addition to scenes of idyllic Southeast Asian village life on the walls, I spotted a Spanish-language beer sign. I didn't ask about the beer sign, but I did ask about the name Viengthong: It's a combination of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Khanhthongphan, the name of the Lao family that owns the restaurant.
Squid salad: The squid was a bit chewy (how often can it be found otherwise?), but the dressing and crunchy vegetables were spot-on: tart, very spicy and loaded with lemongrass. The chili-red dressing made a perfect dipping medium for sticky rice.
Gaeng phet gai: A basic but nicely balanced red curry with chicken, eggplant, bamboo shoots and green beans.
Viengthong dry beef: Thick slices of beef halfway down the road to jerky are marinated in soy sauce and fried until they curl into "chips" that are best eaten as you would potato chips: with your hands.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Squid salad: $7.00
Gaeng phet gai: $6.50
Viengthong dry beef: $6.50
Sticky rice: $2.00
Matthew Amster-Burton can be reached at email@example.com.