On a recent weekend morning, I was driving near Market and 47th, and decided to see what was up on the corner of Imperial and Market. That corner has housed a number of markets and small restaurants over the years with one thing in common; they were all Lao. Back in 2006, it was Vientiane Food to Go, a couple of years later Imperial Thai Cuisine. As I drove to that corner, I noticed that the place had been painted, and now housed a restaurant called Thai Garden, I think.
First thing I noticed as I entered was that even though the lay-out was the same, things looked bright and clean. A fresh coat of paint, some new tile, clean stainless, and paintings will do that to a place.
The menu consists of a couple of dishes written in English on a greaseboard. Like many of these places, I'm sure they make much more than this. The woman working behind the counter next to the greaseboard was hard at work. Directly opposite another woman was working in the "hot kitchen".
The lady behind the counter was friendly, if a bit cautious at first. But when I started asking about various dishes, and where she was from in Laos, she began to open up a bit.
Surprising her, I ordered the Beef Larb. "You know it is raw....." I assured her that enjoyed the stuff. "You like bitter....." To which I said, yes. This meant that in the true Lao style, beef bile was being added to the dish. "How spicy?" To which I replied, "Thai spicy is ok, but Lao spicy is too much." Which made her smile. "Sticky rice?" "Oh, yes, yes....."
And in a few minutes, a plate of Beef Larb appeared at my table.
Topped with mint leaves, and accompanied by really good long beans and fresh cucumber, this was not beginner's larb. The raw beef and tripe had been swimming in heady and heavy, salty fermented fish sauce and paste, which launched an immediate pungent attack. It was pretty salty, but not very spicy. I even munched on the chilies with minimal effect. There was a good amount of puckery bitterness courtesy of beef bile. The mint helped add another dimension to the dish. Looks light, but it's a pretty substantial dish.
Along with the sticky rice.......
The woman was rather pleased with my efforts, and brought me a plate, say "you try, you try, we make this here....." And proceeded to deliver a sausage to me.
This was pretty good sausage, not overly sour, with a good balanced flavor. The flavor of lemon grass and garlic came through well, and unlike the larb, it wasn't overly salty. The filling was perhaps a bit too dense, and the fat content too low, but I still enjoyed it. In fact, I bought a couple to go.
As I was leaving, the woman told me, "next time, order Khao Piak (Lao Rice Noodle Soup), not on menu, but it is very good." Which is how I usually start finding out and eating the "good stuff". I'll be back, and I hope this place does better then the previous couple of restaurants.
I'll say this much; it sure has been cleaned up.
Thai Garden Restaurant
110 47th St
San Diego, CA 92102