Eating Lao at Vientiane

I love to read books set in other countries as a cheap way to travel. One of the most interesting series of books I’ve read lately is Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri mysteries set in Laos in the late seventies, when the Communist party took over. The first book is called Coroner’s Lunch. Dr. Siri is a pathologist with an anti-authoritarian streak who goes about the country solving odd murders. It’s as fascinating for the history lesson and cultural descriptions as for the plots.

I also get to eat vicariously that way, learning about the foods and customs of the story location. Dr. Siri and his friend are always eating sandwiches on baguettes–a leftover influence of the French occupiers. They also drink rice whiskey and, later in the series, lots of noodles from the  food stall of Dr. Siri’s wife. There are lots of Thai and Vietnamese influences as well, and since I like both of those cuisines, I was thrilled to realize that we have a Lao restaurant in West Sacramento!

Vientiane Restaurant, named for the capital city of Laos, is just off Jefferson Boulevard (1001, Suite 600) in a very nondescript strip mall. It used to be in another location, but closed for a while and reappeared not long ago at the new site. The interior is small and sparsely decorated, but often full of families and loyal patrons. (Note to parents: They have two fish tanks and a wall of mirrors that help keep children entertained until the food arrives. A long sidewalk outside is also good for running laps to use up excess kid energy.)

We went recently on a Monday night and they were fairly busy. I had heard that the Lao Spring Rolls were good, so we ordered those first. They were fresh rice paper wrapped around crunchy lettuce, cilantro, and rice noodles, with a zingy sauce. You can also order them with chicken inside, but we did not. Next we moved to entrees and ordered Caramel Pork, which is a very Vietnamese influenced dish with chunks of pork in a sauce made with caramelized sugar. It also had some saltiness to it and we loved it over steamed rice. You can actually order several different kinds of steamed rice at Vientiane (sticky rice is most authentic), so be sure to ask what they have. Our table also got the Chili Prawns, Pineapple Fried Rice with prawns, and Koa Mee–Lao-style fried rice noodles.

The chili prawns were incendiary, with huge chili peppers alongside the prawns. The flavor was wonderfully complex though, and not just knock-you-out spicy. They were one of our favorite dishes. The fried rice was fine, and plentiful, but not as interesting as the one we had recently at Chada Thai. That had more contrasting flavors that this version. The other favorite of the table was the noodles, which is supposedly a Lao version of pad thai. It came with ground pork and a slippery mound of noodles garnished with vegetables and a sort of gravy/sauce. Very satisfying. We tried for sticky rice and mango for dessert, which is a clear Thai influence, but the chef didn’t recommend the mangoes they had left. Apparently there was a run on them earlier in the day.

So we had an appetizer, four entrees, and five non-alcoholic drinks and the total was less than $50! I’d love to go back and try the green papaya salad, which a friend raves about, and the Chili Fish with Spicy Tomato Sauce. While the decor is a bit cold, I enjoyed most of the food immensely and want to learn more about this cuisine that has been so flavored by other cultures. One of the best things about Sacramento is the immense variety of cuisines you can find here. Put Lao on your list and you can pretend you’ve visited, even if only for one meal.

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