Seven years....my goodness. Asia Cafe....aaah, yes, it's been a while, over seven years since my last post if I recall. This wonderful little mom-and-pop-shop once held a place in our rotation and I'm not sure how it just kind of slipped off. Perhaps it was our trip to Laos and our experiencing the depth of the cuisine, the sour-bitter-salty vibrant cuisine. Or maybe it was Vientiane Thai-Laos in Garden Grove that did it. I'm not sure. Even though I haven't posted on this place for a while, I've gone back to Asia Cafe a couple of times, though not for at least about five years or so. So I'd say a revisit post was more than warranted.
If there's comfort in the familiar; Asia Cafe surely hit the mark for us. Not many changes, new banquet style chairs, fresher paint perhaps, and it seemed a lot cleaner than I remembered.
The menu looked to be the same rather worn menu and we decided to order items we enjoyed on previous visits. It had been so long since we visited that the husband and wife who run the place no longer remembered us, which suited us just fine.
Things started off with the Yum Asia; a seafood salad of sorts.
This struck us as being a mere shadow of it's former self. The dressing was extremely sweet, throwing the whole balance of the dish off-kilter. Not enough lime or fish sauce and without a doubt not enough heat. Perhaps we were getting the "gringo" treatment after not returning here after so many years?
See Nam Tok was also another dish we used to enjoy. A simple charred flank steak, well seasoned with a salty-bitter-sweet dipping sauce.
Slightly chewy, this was not bad and an improvement over the Yum Asia. They still do a decent job with this, though it was a bit too charred. The dipping sauce was extremely bitter. Now bitter flavors, as in "sweet makes you dizzy, but bitter makes you healthy", so lets get another spoonful of that water buffalo bile in our Koy or just another piece of Sa-Kahn, bark of the Piper Ribesoides. But this was no fun.
Asia Cafe had always made very good sticky rice and it was nice to know they still do. Perfect in texture, not overly sticky, but perfect for forming that all too important three-finger ball of rice. It had me wishing for some good Jeow (a type of dip) for dipping.
The one item that I thought Asia Cafe made better than anywhere else in San Diego was Nem Khao, one of my Desert Island Dishes.
When made well, this crispy rice salad is a symphony of flavors and textures. Crunch from the rice that is fried....rice are made into balls then fried. The external rice becomes crisp adding that great texture. Fermented sausage adds the sour-meaty layer and the rest is delivered by various seasonings.....places in San Diego, or even Vientiane Thai-Lao doesn't use a whole lot of coconut, but the best version I've had in Laos did. Strangely, this was ok, but not quite as good as I recalled. Not enough sour sausage, it was also missing that "umami" that I enjoyed. somewhere along the line, it seems a decision was made to make this as "crunchy" as possible, which messed up the glutinous and crunchy textures. The Missus doesn't always agree with me, but sadly, this time She did. This wasn't bad by any means, just not as good as it used to be for us. I could tell that this bothered Her as She kept mentioning how sad She felt about the Nam Khao for almost the entire following week.
In the end, the folks here were wonderful as always, the prices so reasonable, unfortunately the food seemed a mere shadow of it's former self. I'm not sure; maybe we were "gringo'd", but that never happened to us here before.
The Missus asked me what I wanted this past weekend, I'd been craving Jiaozi since we got back from our trip. So I thought a trip to Qing Dao Bread Food would be great. But the weekend rolled around and it was on the warm side.....and man, it had been a while since I had Lao food! So I thought what about grabbing a bite at Vientiane Thai Lao? The Missus jumped at it....which made me a bit suspicious. My suspicions were confirmed when She directed me to drive to South Coast Plaza. A half hour later, She had a new pair of Christian Loubitouns and I was going to get my Lao food. How's that for a trade off? Well, it could have been worse, She had spent some time checking out jewelry at the Chanel store...yikes!!!
We were rather surpised when we stepped into Vientiane.....the place had been renovated since we last visited during the beginning of 2010. It looked nothing like what I remembered.
I sure hoped that the food was the same! We were waited on by a couple of really friendly young men, who did their job adequately and with good humor.
There were two dishes we'd driven up for; the first was the Raw Shrimp Salad ($7.99):
I appreciated the fact that we weren't asked how spicy we wanted it. It would be interesting to see what we got. I think my tolerance has gone down quite a bit now that I don't eat as much spicy food as I used too. After a couple of bites I had sweat pouring down my face. But that didn't prevent me from really enjoying this dish. In spite of the chilies, you can still get the slight sweetness of the shrimp coming through. Nice tangy flavors from the citrus, a bit of garlic, fish sauce, chilies, all jockeying for top spot in the flavor battle...what's not to like?
We also ordered the Ka Na Moo Krob($6.99). If I recall, Moo = Pork and Krob = Crunchy, or something like that.
I know some folks don't enjoy the chewy texture of roasted/braised, then deep fried pork belly, but I kind of like it. The pork had decent flavor, the Gailan (Chinese broccoli) was fresh. The sauce, which tasted like Kecap Manis, or some type of sweet soy, along with some oyster sauce, and perhaps some bean paste(?) edged on the salty end of the scale. It was fine when eating at the restaurant....in fact, we ordered some sticky rice with the sole purpose of soaking all the sauce up. The leftovers tended to be much too salty....note to self: next time finish it all!
Next up, one of those dishes I'll request before the executioner pulls that lever......Nam Khao ($6.50). I just love the sour-salty-crunchy-nutty-savory goodness of Nam Khao.
You know, Nye has a wonderful looking recipe for this on her blog, but I just can't bring my self to make this. I guess making this would eliminate the air of mysterious wonderfulness that dish provides....so I just avoid it. what I really enjoy about this version is that's it is less salty and probably quite low on the MSG scale if there's any in it at all. You can make out the coconut, the sour sausage, the nuttiness of the fried rice......
The last dish we ordered is I believe a version of Or Lam, a typical stew dish called "Meat Stew with Dill and Herbs (Aww)" on the menu ($6.99). Given that the Missus pretty much doesn't eat chicken, beef, or pork, we went with the fish version.
The catfish was too muddy for my tastes, but the Missus liked it. I thought the eggplant and the kabocha were cooked quite well, the Missus was especially taken by the kabocha, soft, but still holding shape, the sweetness coming through with each bite. The broth looked fairly dark and funky, and you could make out what was probably either a bit fermented fish or shrimp paste, which actually took a back seat to the generous amount of dill and kaffir lime leaf flavoring everything. Overall, the Missus enjoyed this much more than I did.
It was a nice meal since we'd been talking about Laos a bit recently and our bill came out to a tad over $30, with leftovers for dinner, a pretty good deal. I'm sure we won't wait two years to return next time. Maybe it was worth the price of those Christian Loubitouns....well, maybe not, we could have over 20 of these meals for those pair of shoes....but who's counting, right?
Thanks for stopping in to look at mmm-yoso!!!, our food blog. Kirk is not blogging today, nor is ed(from Yuma). Cathy is sharing another meal she has enjoyed.
The first time I went to Asia Cafe, I met up with ed (from Yuma), who drove to San Diego for a visit. It was as wonderful as Kirk had described in his three posts in 2006 and I immediately understood why ed(from Yuma) would drive in (from Yuma) and make Asia Cafe one of his first stops here. Asia Cafe became part of the 'rotation' for me and The Mister. I realized the other day that that part of our rotation had somehow fallen away, probably because the wonderment which is Lao-Thai food showed up walking distance from our home in Santee, in the form of Sab-E-Lee.
Located in the corner of a small mall anchored by a Laundromat, on Market Street and 47th, Asia Cafe is easy to miss or just overlook; There's a car repair shop in the middle of that mall. However, business has always been booming, either
with most of the six tables with 28 chairs filled, or just with people picking up phoned in orders.
The menu, written in Thai and English, is only 3 pages long, has sections including Pho, Com and Bun as well as stir fried meats and fried rice dishes right next to a section of larbs, Lao-noodles, soups and curry dishes. I must say that each item I have had here is very well prepared and tasty.
So, we started this visit with deep fried spring rolls- (6 for $3.75). These were filled with pork, vegetables and clear noodles and did not have an excess of spring roll dough and were fried perfectly. Served with lettuce leaves, mint and cilantro-which complimented the Lao sweet and spicy sauce (fish sauce with a kick), these are better than average. I don't think any place else serves cilantro with fried spring rolls and the flavors seem so right together.
The other two dishes we ordered, both of which I craved, were (top part of photo) the Crying Tiger ($5.50). Beef larb, basically with at first a heat/spice level you may not have expected...but at some point the lemongrass, lemon juice, onions and fine powdery rice coating on the meat becomes so satisfying and you realize that you can taste all the flavors. This is addicting.
The bottom dish in the photo is chicken cashew nut ($5.50) A simple version of stir fried chicken, onions, straw mushrooms, scallions and cashews. The sauce is a bit sweet, but needs to be in this dish. Steamed rice is $1.50 and sticky rice is $2. One order is enough to share.
I'm so glad that Asia Cafe is still here and that the food, prices, owners and even the interior is unchanged. I do like consistency.
Asia Cafe 4710 Market Street San Diego 92102 (619) 527-1917
Closed Tuesdays. Open 10:30-6:30 M-W-Th-F, 11:00-6:30 S-S
One of the restaurants I had on my list from my previous visit to Madison was Lao Laan-Xang. Though it seems that many regard Lao Laan-Xang as a Thai Restaurant(and the sign does say Laotian Cuisine), the Owners are Lao, and there were more than few Lao style dishes on the menu...... and it had been a while since I've had good Lao food. Luckily, the weather had cleared by my last evening in Madison, and I was able to head down to the Williamson Street location of Lao Laan-Xang.
The tiny, but very warm and welcoming shop brought back memories of my first experience with Thai Food at the tiny Keo's on Kapahulu Boulevard back in the very early 80's. Keo's has of course gone to greater things, but my memories of that tiny but welcoming restaurant stay dear to my heart. This was before the great Thai food boom, and indeed I recall when I told one of my dates that we were going for "Thai Food", she asked me if "this was a chicken place?" (Thigh food, got it?) Which had me laughing the whole evening....... it was also on that very evening we saw a very petite woman with big hair and big.... ummm....well, anyway it turned out to be Dolly Parton. On another night, I spied Steve Perry from Journey having dinner there. And though this dining room would never reach the orchid filled heights of Keo's, there was something cozy that just reminded me of that place.
And amongst the Crab Rangoon, Fried Rice, and Curries, there were two of my favorite Lao dishes. The first was hard to find since it was under it's Thai name of Khao Tod Nam Som.... but there it was, what I call one of my "Death Row Dishes" - Nam Khao ($9.50):
Before I continue, let me apologize for the photos. It get's pretty dark on "The Willy" at night. This version of Nam Khao was not bad, but lacked the amount of crunchiness I enjoy. Also, it was less sour, lacking that fermented sourness I enjoy. Still this was ok, I've had worse, though it was miles behind the versions I've had at Aisa Cafe, Vientiane Restaurant in Garden Grove, and not even close to what I had in Vientiane.... as in Vientiane, Laos. It was also fairly pricey, about 30% more than what you'd pay in San Diego.
I also ordered the Mok Pa ($15.99), with some reservations, as the only decent version I had of this dish was at Vietiane in Garden Grove. But this was very good.
I had learned how to make this dish after taking a cooking class at Tamarind Cooking School in Luang Prabang, and loved the complex flavors so much that I've made this at home, though I end up steaming it rather than grilling it. This dish did not disappoint; the fish was wonderfully moist and tender, but not over-cooked, and did not have any muddy flavor at all. The flavor of dill was there, adding that refreshing clean taste without over-powering the dish. The lindering flavors of the herbs was excellent. The portion size was quite large, almost enough for two.
About the only thing not very good about the whole meal was the very low quality of the sticky rice. It was off-white and I bit into some terribly hard pieces of rice. i'm thinking it must be pretty hard to get good quality sticky rice in Madison.
I won't go into the bland steamed "gringo" vegetables, because heck, this happens everywhere in San Diego as well.
We received good service, our Server was friendly, and our waters were refilled. The food was quite good, so I'll surely be headed back here the next time I'm in Madison.
Lao Laan-Xang 1146 Williamson St Madison, WI 53703
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.......
This was very satisfying.......
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
Maybe I should've made a few resolutions for the New Year. First on that list would be "completing things I started sooner....." I realize that I did part 1 of this post on December 30th. I could, of course make it sound even farther "upstream" by writing something like "last year".... Of course, I still haven't finished my posts on Guatemala, or even Thailand, I hope to get those done before we leave on our next big trip. So without further ado..... these are in no particular order, but it's the meals that the Missus and I talk about most often.
I've always been fascinated by markets of all shapes, sizes, and types. You learn so much about the people who live in these destinations, by checking out the market..... The Sunday Market at Bac Ha is well known as a gathering of the various Hill tribes. The Can Cau Market is less well known, but we found that we enjoyed it more.... it was less touristy, and it seems a bit more laid-back, not that the term "laid back" in anyway describes anything in Vietnam.
Here in the hill country of Vietnam, the colors worn by the people are vibrant and colorful; the Flower H'mong, Red Zao, Giay, the Blue H'mong.
We had made it clear early on that we don't do tourist food, and ended up eating where everyone else was; sitting on low benches a few inches above the hard-packed dirt.
The fare was simple, boiled pork, noodle soup, pickled greens, and the star of the show, Ruou Ngo, the local "moonshine" poured into used plastic water bottles from "Jerry cans".... the equivalent of 50 cents got your 16 ounce water bottle filled to the brim with Ruou.
And then the inevitable happened, we became the current novelty.... Our guide approached with cups of Ruou telling us that two of the gentleman sitting across the way "want to have a drink with you, because tourists never eat with them. They are very happy and proud that you would eat the same food." This of course, was only the beginning, of a scene we've encountered almost everywhere we've been in SEA, "they don't believe you're American. They say that you cannot be American, you don't look like Americans. Americans rarely come here, and those that do are afraid of the food, and won't drink with them. They take their pictures and leave right away."
Just as we are curious about the lives of people who seem so exotic and different, they are just as fascinated with us. You'd lose so much by keeping things at safe distance sometimes.....
What sticks with me was a toast the proprietor of the pork stall made before we left. Finding out that the Missus is Chinese, he made the following toast: "to Vietnamese and Chinese, we are brothers and neighbors, and brothers sometimes fight, but in the end we are still brothers". In the end, we are all brothers, under the same moon and sun......
Peru was a delicious and fascinating trip, and words cannot describe Machu Picchu.
Without a doubt, one of the highlites of our time in Cusco was dinner with the family of a friend of ours. We were told that they'd be making us a meal of Cuy, something that got me rather excited. That excitement was dampened when I had a terrible meal of Cuy the night before. Man was it bad, but there was a reason for that I was to find out later.
This family opened their home and hearts to us. And the Cuy was wonderful!
Crisp skin like roast pork, Cuy is all dark meat, and does taste like dark meat pork. I nibbled on the legs, the little bit of meat by the back spine is fabulous. And of course we had a drink after dinner to "kill the Cuy" as they say.
So why did that Cuy we had the previous night taste so bad? It was because they were fed a diet of meal that included fish and other ingredients to make them grow large quickly. The traditional food for Cuy is Alfalfa.
We spent a wonderful evening talking about all sorts of subjects..... humor is universal! When it comes down to it, we are more alike then we are different.....
I usually don't do posts on fine dining and the like in San Diego. Like I've written many times, there are many other great food blogs and sources for that kind of info. Our meals during our travels are a different story.....
At the time of our visit in 2007 Astrid y Gaston, Gaston Acurio's flagship restaurant was on Pellegrino's top 100 restaurants in the world list. The concept of Novoandina Cuisine was very interesting to us. The unique cuisine of Peru had us entranced, and Astrid y Gaston really delivered.
Of course the Missus got Cuy, yet again.
Appetizer, drinks, and mains for two, for the equivalent of $80/US! Plus, a glimpse of the future of Peruvian cuisine.......
- Dinner at Tamarind: Luang Prabang
After attending the Tamarind Cooking School, we made reservations for dinner at Tamarind. And what a dinner it was, I had to do two posts to cover the meal. The meal we made reservations for was called the "Adventurous Lao Gourmet", and after checking out the local Wet Market, I could only imagine what we'd be having.....
And for the equivalent of $12 per person, this degustation style meal surely delivered.
From various "Jeow" (dips).....
to "Fish Poo".....
And steamed pigs brains.....
And of course, the various insects..... some of which I enjoyed more than others.
Even beyond the "look at what I'm eating" attention seeking thingy, I learned so much during this meal. Joy, one of the owners presents each course, and explains a bit about each dish.
Remember the quote from Brillat-Savarin: "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." Well this meal displayed to me resourcefulness, "Thao" a wonderful Jeow made from Spyrogyra, what some call "pond scum", salt-pickling, fish curd, and yes, even "Fish Poo" where the intestinal matter of the fish is used for preservation displays one of the most basic means of preserving food without modern refrigeration. The steamed pig brains is a cherished item, as Joy told us it "what you'll make for your children if you love them."
All of which was eaten with that Lao staple, sticky rice.
There's a peaceful, gentle, friendly tolerance we encountered everywhere in Laos.
Vientiane was quite a contrast from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok and even Nong Khai. Sometimes you happen upon just the right meal at the perfect time. And this was it. There are a huge number of stands along the Mekong river. For some reason, we decided to stick with the one we first passed early on. It was wasn't a huge set-up like the other stands, but the folks running the stand seemed so warm and friendly.
Sitting on a makeshift bamboo platform, I could feel all the tension and worries lazily drift down the Mekong. Of course, the Beerlao didn't hurt!
Some of the food, like the stir fried Morning Glory was good.
Other items like the whole fish, was just okay......
What really sent this meal to the "memorable list" was the act of thoughtfulness by the folks who ran this stand. You'll have to read the post to get that story. Let me just say, that along with being the best Nem Khao I've ever had......
It was a great introduction to the thoughtfulness of the folks in Laos.
And hey, that sunset wasn't too bad either!
So there you go...... Five memorable meals. There are a few more that I could probably add.
But it's those five that we talk about the most.....
You know, there's a song I've been listening to quite a bit lately. To me, it's got a great hook..... but I also realized that there's a line of the song that always makes me smile:
It had been such a long time since the Missus and I went on one of our eating road trips. First I was busy, than the Missus was busy, than I got sick, than the Missus was busy....you get it. I'd say those hours of being sick were the worst. You get into these periods of melancholy, followed by periods where you daydream about being somewhere else, anywhere, away from the body aches, coughing, the irritated spouse, you get it, right? For some reason, my mind kept taking me back to Laos. I can't put my finger on it, but there was something about that trip, that stayed with me......
So as soon as I felt better and we actually had a free weekend day, we were itching to head "up North." And what better place to check out than a Lao Restaurant I'd heard about.
Vientiane Restaurant is located in one of what may be a couple hundred strip malls in the Westminster/Garden Grove area.
It is tucked back, away from the street, over-shadowed by Pho 54 in Saigon Plaza. The sign simply says "Lao & Thai Food". The restaurant itself is tiny, comprised of four tables. When we arrived there was just a woman on her cell phone waiting for an order, and no else up front. We checked out the cold case, and were comforted at all the Jeow (dips) and other items. It indicated that we were at the right place.
Now comes the funny part. A very nice woman seated us, and handed us menus. When we were ready to order, I started giving off menu item numbers. No dice. I started reading off the English, translations.... wasn't going to work. The woman giggled. I pointed to the items on the menu (no Lao script - but English translations). The woman leaves, and another very motherly woman comes out..... same drill. The previous woman comes out, points to the menu and tells me "you read it to me." I start cracking up, the Missus is rolling Her eyes....She always gives me grief over my terrible pronounciations, and this might be downright painful. This was going to be much harder than "tres tacos Al Pastor". For some reason, this exchange took me right back to Laos.... So I start, and it is quite interesting.... "Mok Pa", "eh", "Mok Pa", "fish?"," yes, Mok Pa". "Ooooh, Mok Paaa!" The Missus is covering Her eyes. She can't bear to watch this disaster. At the end of the whole drill, the woman laughs, and exclaims, "you say good!" More eye rolling from the Missus. The woman starts walking back to the kitchen, turns and makes a spoon to mouth motion, "rice, you want rice!" I make the Lao three finger to mouth motion and go "sticky rice". "OK!" I thank her, "kopchai lai lai", She starts laughing, and the Missus has a look like She's just returned from the dentist, and says, "we'll see if we get what you really wanted to order."
Well, at least the sticky rice was going to be right.
A large container of perfectly made sticky rice. In San Diego, I believe that Asia Cafe is the only place that consistently makes perfect sticky rice, and this was on par.
Of course, right at this moment a gentleman enters carrying several sacks of groceries. He speaks excellent English.
Next up, one of my Death Row dishes - Nam Kao ($6.50):
Man this was good, the textures, the pork skin, the mildly sour fermented sausage, the smokey, almost sweet toasted chilies. Served with all the requiredveggies and herbs, this was such a vibrant dish. The second best I've had, next to the one in Vientiane. Crunchy crisp rice, chewy sausage and pork skin, amazing flavors, a symphony of textures.
Next up the Larb Pa Thong - in this case Catfish Larb ($7.99):
At first I was worried, as I'm not a big fan of catfish and the muddy flavors. But in this case, the muddiness was muted by the strong savoriness of the sauce. The roasted rice powder added a nice nuttiness, and the mint and galangal helped to cleanse your palate.
As good as the Nam Kao was, the dish that I've been craving is the Raw Shrimp ($7.99):
Even though I know they went easy on us in the spice department, this was a fantastic dish. The shrimp was slightly toothsome and sweet, the amount of garlic and lime was balanced in a never ending tug-of-war of flavor. Heck even the tomato slices tasted good with the sauce! We finished every single piece of everything on the plate, even the shredded cabbage. It looked like we vacuumed the plate. As much as I enjoy the Naked Shrimp at Sab E Lee..... you get the point, right?
The last dish was the only clunker of the day, the Mok Pa($4.00) - fish in banana leaf:
Even though the menu says steamed, it looked like it had been placed on a brazier. The fish was very boney, and not of high quality. The banana leaf also looked past prime, and didn't deliver the wonderful slight smoky flavor that I love. Also, for strange reason, the flavors seemed very muted. Maybe it's because I make this at home once in a while? I dunno.....
Even though we always like to check out different places on our road trips, we'll without a doubt be back here.
As went to wash my hands before and after (eating sticky rice, you know) the meal, I walked past the kitchen (spotless clean just like Asia Cafe), and the three women were singing. One humming, two singing different parts of a song. I was reminded of the housekeepers in our hotel in Vientiane, three girls, barefoot (this is Laos), always singing together in harmony while they worked.....
I really don't need much prompting to be taken back to Vientiane....
Welcome to mmm-yoso!!! -- Kirk's foodblog. Sometimes he lets Cathy post here, and today he's letting ed (from Yuma) post about a meal that you may have read about once or twice already.
On my last trip to San Diego, America's finest city, I fortunately arrived on the same day that Kirk, Howie, and Candice were planning a visit to Sang Dao, a Lao/Thai restaurant recently relocated on to El Cajon Blvd. I managed to finagle an invitation to join them there.
Like many good dining spots run by recent immigrants, it is located in a somewhat dicey neighborhood, between a gold buyer and a payday advance place: I never expected to post about the meal, but it seems that I took the most photos. Anyway, thought some readers might enjoy looking at more pictures of the food. But be sure to read Kirk's account of the restaurant and Candice's too - to get expert opinions.
First, the raw beef salad: In this case, my picture is not especially good although it does show the wealth of greens that accompany the salad. I thought it tasted fine and liked the slight background bitter touch of bile. It was was not as beefy and, mercifully, not as overwhelmingly hot as the version at Sab-E-Lee (prepared Thai spicy for Kirk) which he and I had enjoyed around New Years.
Next we were served spicy offal soup (anybody remember the name?): This was really good. The broth was deeply savory and lit up with chile spices. I kept shoveling various organ meats into my mouth, chewing them up, swallowing them, and going back for more. Even when I had no idea what I was eating: One dish that I wanted in particular was whole fish -- which I guess is kind of an obsession of mine. I thought that the tilapia arrived looking very pretty: The taste matched the look of the fish. The first flavor notes that hit my palate were touches of sweetness, but the sweetness was nicely balanced with citrus flavors. The sauce did not overwhelm the flavor of the fish. I was also impressed by the quality of the frying. Though the skin was crisp, this fish remained moist from head to tail: Next to arrive was the offal noodle soup: This soup was less enticing to any of us. The numerous slices of liver dominated the flavor of the bowl. I crave liverwurst sometimes, but this soup proved that I am not a true liver lover. The super soft noodles seemed OK, but added little. I would try a different noodle dish on a future visit.
My only other complaint about the meal - the sticky rice tasted a bit dried out.
Candice insisted we try a red curry shrimp dish that she had had before. I'm glad she did. As you can tell by the brownish color of the curry, the sauce had intense and complex flavors. It was so good I forgot to take a picture until almost the entire serving was gone: I should probably add that I was the one who finished off the last of this wonderful curry.
The final item served was certainly one of the most impressive. It was a chopped long bean salad prepared with Lao spicing: In some ways, this resembles an extremely funky green papaya salad. Look at the color of the dressing. The pungent flavor of fish sauce (and/or fermented shrimp?) infused every bite of the salad. The diced chilies raised the spice level high. But even with all these other flavors, the intense green bean taste and green bean crunch stood out in every mouthful. A texture/taste treat. For me, this was an amazing and exciting dish. Nothing like it in Yuma!
Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed more pictures. And I hope Kirk, or Howie, or Candice feel free to correct or add to this discussion. Compared to most Thai food, this seemed more in your face funky with more salty than sweet flavors. I, for one, appreciated the extensive menu (unlike Asia Cafe), which seems to invite return visits.
When the bill came, we were all amazed at the low cost for the all the food we'd eaten. No need to sell that wedding ring or borrow til payday to have dinner here.
Sang Dao Restaurant, 5421 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115, (619) 263-0914 :
On May first, Sang Dao opened in new digs on the corner of 54th and El Cajon Boulevard. A week later, I decided to check them out. It had been a while, but now since they've a bit (just a bit) closer, I really had no excuse.
Though located next to one of the "check cashing" places, the interior of the "new digs" is much different from the Sang Dao I knew on National Avenue! Bright and shiny like a new penny.....
And since my post back in 2005, I think I've learned a little bit about Lao cuisine.
The menu at this new location, looks the same, though I decided to stray a bit, and started asking about a few items. I think it's unfortunate that dishes like Or Lam, Mok Pa, and Kaeng Nor Mai Som aren't represented on the menu. In speaking to one of the young men, I was told that items such as those would not sell, though they make them for their own family meals at home. There are a few items that aren't on the menu, one which is the Raw Beef Larb:
Though you'll often hear folks say that "Issan Food is the same as Lao Food"(though often said by folks with a political agenda), and I do believe that in general, the differentiation is one of borders, not cuisine, I do note differences. And one of the dishes where this is reflected is in the Raw Beef Larb. There's an interesting Lao saying that you'll see everywhere on the Internet, something along the lines of "sweet makes you dizzy, but bitter makes you healthy". Funny thing was, I was told just about the same thing at my cooking class in Luang Prabang. In those restaurants where you find the cook/chef is from Issan (Northeast Thailand), such as Sab E Lee, you'll find the Raw Beef Larb to be more citrusy, the dish a bit lighter.Here at Sang Dao, it is full on Lao, except in heat, I think that even though I ordered this spicy, they took it easy on me. First, was the inclusion of offal, which added an earthiness to the dish. Second, was the addition of a good amount of beef bile, which adds, at least to me, a nice bitterness to the dish. Sab E Lee and Lotus of Siam, will add it to your dish, but not in large amounts.
For me, the addition of those notes made this dish much more substantial, and along with the required sticky rice, it can be treated like a proper entree of sorts.
As I was taught in Laos, no meal is complete without a soup, which is not to be treated as a soup in Western terms, that is, as a "starter", but to be eaten along with the meal. I really didn't feel like having the recommended Tom Kroung Nai, Intestine Soup, so I went with the other recommendation, the "Jungle Curry':
A curry without coconut milk is termed a "jungle curry", though this was more of a soup. It was pleasant, and I enjoyed the eggplant and other veggies in the soup. Not overly rich, this was a nice foil to the larb. It tasted like a nice "homestyle" soup. I brought the remainder home, and though She declared it to be weak in the heat department the Missus enjoyed it.
If you visit Sang Dao, remember to spend a minute or two at the take-out counter, you'll find a good selection of Jeow (Dips). I think one of these days, I pick up a variety, along with some sticky rice. On this day, I bought the Naem Khao from the take-out counter. This may look a bit different from say, the version at Asia Cafe.
The dish is sold deconstructed, though they'll mix it for you if you want. The Missus said this was good, though She still prefers the version from Asia Cafe.
Even though the location of Sang Dao has changed, the food has not, many of the dishes are distinctly country-homestyle. And in case you're not in the mood for Raw Beef Larb, or Intestine Soup, many of the Curries and other dishes are quite good. Ed from Yuma, Howie, and I had the pleasure of sharing a meal at Sang Dao with Candice Woo, some of which is included in Her article, so please check it out.
Sang Dao Restaurant 5421 El Cajon Blvd San Diego, CA 92115 (619) 263-0914
It seems that this location on 47th Street changes owners as often as I visit the area. Back in 2006, it was Vientiane Food to Go. In 2007, it became Mekong Village, with the small steam table and take out business, along with an attached market. The market has been abandoned (hopefully, only for now), and the little restaurant is now called Imperial Thai Cuisine. And....they serve everything in the book...Chinese, Thai, and Lao!
And if you haven't noticed...Pho....more about this later. As I parked my car, and walked through the door, and older gentleman greeted me with the all-to-familiar "sa-bai-dee...." And that's when I knew, the Owners were Lao. And a sign on the flourescent green painted wall, confirmed my suspicions.
There were construction paper signs with Chinese stir-fries and the like on the wall, a menu that featured various noodles soups, and a steam table. Talk about covering all your bases!
Because I responded to my greeting with a Sabaidee of my own, the very friendly, jolly, older woman started talking to me in Lao. At which time I shook my head vigorously, I said, "oh no, I only know Sa-bai-dee...." Which cracked the woman up. It turns out that the woman hails from outside Luang Prabang, and we started discussing, well, food of course. Jeow Bong, Khai Pene, Or Lam...and all sorts of stuff. But of course I was here to eat....and the woman insisted on making me, "big bowl of Lao noodle soup". How could I resist?
In my minds eye I could see a large bowl of Khao Pak Sen, the wonderful soup we had every morning in Luang Prabang hitting the table. But instead it was a humongous bowl of Lao "Foe", the style of Pho you'll see in Laos.
In Laos, Foe is pretty much a create your own bowl of soup kind of thing. This bowl had a large amount of meatballs, "squeeky", but not overly tough. The meat, as expected in the homestyle soup were the tough flank cuts....rather tough, but with good flavor. A big difference was the quantity of meat in the soup....it would have been enough for 3-4 bowls of soup in Luang Prabang. The noodles were routine rice noodles, and the broth was fairly straight ahead, and mildly beefy in flavor.
In Laos you'd have a plate of basil, cilantro, perhaps green beans, "kapi"(Shrimp Paste), etc, at your disposal....here it was some bean sprouts and lime. But luckily, the woman brought me, "something special" for my Foe.....a little dish full of her home made Jeow (dip).
This was a wonderful Jeow, sweet, tangy, sour, and mildly spicy. It added life to the somewhat mundane soup. I had no doubt that this was an off-menu "MP" (market price) item, it was quite filling, and came in at $8.
As I was paid, and was about to leave, I noticed that the Young Man who took care of the steam table items, brought out some fried chicken:
I did a double take....it looked like...could it be? "TFC" (Thai Fried Chicken???) I could not take my eyes off the pile of poultry. I asked the woman what this was, and of course she said ("LFC"), "Lao Fried Chicken". Four pieces $5. So, of course I bought some.
Unfortunately, the chicken was very greasy, and lacked flavor. It was also tough as heck. Sigh.....my search for TFC goes on.
The woman who runs the place is quite talkative, jolly, and quite the saleswomen. I believe she found this little Asian guy who can only say hello and thank-you in Lao, but will talk your head off about Khai Pene, Jeow Bong, An Thao, and Or Lam, kind of strange and amusing. The gentleman, who I assume is her husband is more quiet and serious. The restaurant isn't the most sparkling clean place...though I'm sure when you shut off the lights it'll glow in the dark. The food was pretty much homecooking so I'm not quite sure if I'll be back....but the woman's last words to me, "next time maybe we have Or Lam", sure has me considering it.
Imperial Thai Cuisine 110 47th St San Diego, CA 92102