There's a certain contingent of food people who see new foods as a challenge, as a frontier that must be conquered. Conversations with them remind me of the ones I endured with music snobs in college: "Have you tried X? Have you been to Y? Have you ordered the spiciest dish at Z?" and so on. It's a brand of foodieism I particularly despise because it turns what should be a pleasurable experience — eating a new, delicious thing, broadening your culinary horizons — into a competition. A fun chat about shared discovery becomes a dreary bout of one-upmanship.
Then again, I also make it a point to seek out new flavors and cuisines, though not for the bragging rights as much as for my own education. A dish you've never tried is a way to travel to a new place, marvel over what people subsist on in other cultures, get a glimpse into how the rest of the world lives. So I was very excited to see not one but two Lao restaurants open in San Francisco over the past few months, thus bringing the city's total Lao restaurant count up to two. Laos is a small, landlocked country nestled between Thailand and Vietnam, and I'd heard the cuisine was a mashup of the two. What I found was many of the familiar ingredients — fish sauce, curry, lime, cilantro — but, in the best dishes, infused with a nuanced depth of flavor I hadn't encountered before.
Champa Garden opened in late 2013 to some fanfare. The restaurant's first location in East Oakland has a cult following, and the new iteration came about at the behest of the mayor's office. This spot's right off the Ingleside neighborhood's main strip, just down the street from the Whole Foods, a generic but nice-looking room with red walls, recessed ceilings, a few flower accents, and a bar despite its current lack of liquor license (BYOB is encouraged). The menu is a mix of Lao and Thai items, so to try the rarer items, you should do your homework before going in.
One must-order is the Champa Sampler, a combo of three popular appetizers that come on a plate with vermicelli noodles and a tangy dipping sauce, accompanied by another plate heaped with lettuce and fresh herbs. The spring rolls had been fried within an inch of their lives, but were tasty if unexceptional. Sliced Lao sausage was moist and tender, slightly scented with lemongrass. But the sampler's real attraction was the fried rice ball salad, nam kaow, a popular Lao dish that mixes hunks of crispy fried rice with preserved pork, green onions, lime juice, and other assorted goodness. It was an interesting melange of flavors and textures, especially when wrapped with lettuce and herbs, but I wished it had more zip.
Other items suffered from the same problem — not blandness, necessarily, just a lack of vibrancy. Papaya salad, Lao-style, was funkier and more fish sauce-intensive than Thai versions, though it wasn't particularly spicy. Lao-style larp had the least flavor, just a pile of beef mixed with tripe with a little heat, a little lime, and not much else. It sat mostly untouched throughout the meal.
One of the best dishes was the simplest: kaow paik, a chicken soup with a clear broth, juicy hunks of white meat, and soft homemade noodles that had a lovely supple texture somewhere between al dente spaghetti and mushy rice noodles. But Ingleside seemed like a long way to come for chicken noodle soup. I left the restaurant wondering if Lao food was as unexceptional as the meal had suggested; I couldn't tell whether the meal's mediocrity had been due to the restaurant or my own unrealistic expectations.
Then I went to Maneelap Srimongkoun and found the culinary adventure I'd been looking for. The newish Excelsior restaurant is run by sisters-in-law, one Lao and one Thai, and the menu is neatly divided accordingly. Once I tried the nam kao tod, the crispy rice ball with raw preserved pork, I understood why it's a beloved dish. This version, unlike Champa Garden's, was bright with lime juice and brought down to earth by a generous portion of salty preserved pork; it was garnished with ginger, peanuts, and herbs, little explosions of flavor.
The papaya salad, too, was much better. Fermented anchovies played off the fish sauce, adding another layer to the dressing, and there was spice, a lot of it, overwhelming if you ate it by itself but just right if you ate it as a wrap with the soft noodles that accompanied it. (Lao beer also helps with spice. It's a dark, malty blend that coats the mouth in a sweet blanket to alleviate the heat of the food.)
Like the papaya salad, moo som, fried fermented pork, was a little much on its own — the deep funkiness of the meat started to overwhelm within a few bites — but inside a lettuce wrap, the meat's strong flavor was tempered and it became one of the more intense and complex pork dishes I have had the good fortune to try. Pork jerky, small pieces of air-dried, deep-fried pork, was like a meaty version of Native American salmon candy. Two deep fried quail, their outsides a deep burnished brown, had juicy meat marinated with spices; they were only enhanced by the not-too-spicy housemade sriracha that came on the side. The only bum note was the Lao sausage. Though it had a much more pronounced lemongrass flavor, it was unfortunately dry.
And though I didn't try the chicken soup, I was impressed with kao poon, a coconut milk-chicken curry with homemade noodles that had the same pliable texture as the noodles at Champa Garden.
Servers were incredibly nice, though the décor was a bit off — Thomas Kinkade-esque paintings, wooden giraffes flanking fake flowers, tables spaced oddly around the room, a flatscreen in the corner showing basketball. Even weirder was the large back room, by the bathrooms, which was taken up with storage and sagging party decorations that looked to be left over from Valentine's Day. But with great food, I'll forgive a fair amount of weirdness.
And the food was damn good — so good that the table was mostly quiet during the meal, save for exclamations over this dish or that. I put down my fork for a moment and my mouth thrummed with flavor, like leg muscles after a long run. I detected the tang of lime, the musk of fish sauce, the crisp bite of cilantro, the building heat of the peppers. This was a cuisine where every bite built upon the last, creating a crescendo of flavor. I sat there happily, enjoying the music. Then I dived back in.