Sticky rice is so vital to Lao food that Laotians refers to themselves as luk khao niaow, or “children of sticky rice.” It isn’t the least bit hard to find any in San Francisco, but Lao food is quite rare. Lanxang Kingdom, the delightful pop-up that took over the Tenderloin location of Turtle Tower every Thursday about a year-and-a-half ago eventually folded, and took its red ant salad and silkworm larvae right along with it.
But another well-regarded Thai chain has jumped into the Lao fray. Osha Thai, which has six locations around town, opened Lao Table on a newly thrilling stretch of Second Street in SoMa that’s also home to S.F.’s first Sweetgreen and to upscale pizzeria Jersey. It’s fancier than either, with appetizers like duck wings and fried pork belly in the $9-$19 range, and noodle bowls that approach the $30 threshold. No two ways about it: That’s a lot of money for most people to spend on lunch.
But Lao Table is also a contender for the most beautiful restaurant in San Francisco. The interior is hung with checked prints, and there are huge arrangements of flowers among large yet tasteful statuary. If you’re going to throw down for crying tiger steak or a coconut Alaskan king crab curry with fermented rice noodles, you might as well do so in amid gorgeous environs.
Executive chef Lalita Souksamlane grew up on the frontier between of Laos and Thailand, and while the finer points distinctions of that borderland’s culinary heritage might fail to sink into much of the noon-hour crowd, it’s safe to say that the freshness of flavor that characterizes upmarket Southeast Asian cooking has found a new benchmark for excellence here — and that vegetarians should just keep on walking. The larb duck pakxe ($22.95), a lettuce wrap with two-toned sticky rice, comes with such a bountiful bouquet of fresh herbs, and even crudite, that there’s almost no worrying about that famously chili-centric dish. (“Spicier than Thai,” the server said, after I hesitated between ordering it medium or spicy.) You can roll yourself a solid half dozen lettuce cups without running out of a single component.
Ground into lime- and onion-heavy crumbles, this duck hits the mouth like pork. But the gang beef ($21.95) is unmistakably beef, augmented with Thai eggplant at its most tomatillo-like, bamboo shoots, and a broth full of mushrooms and green beans. It’s much closer to the takeout-Thai formula than the larb, but only structurally. This is a rich, herbaceous dish.
Lao Table has a full bar, with a cocktail list, that’s open for happy hour — plus ice creams fettered with edible blossoms for dessert. But the moral of the story is that, however beautiful, this is a place to eat like a proper child of sticky rice. The menu even says so: “Eat with your hand! Go for it.”
Lao Table, 149 Second St. 415-872-9219 or laotablesf.com