My final vacation meal was small and slapdash, a zero hour take out excursion I barely managed to squeeze in before Vientian Café closed at an early 9pm. Burmese (which I never got to), Mayan and Laotian are three cuisines lacking in NYC that the Bay Area has aplenty. (Only the latter made the recent Village Voice “Nine Cuisines Missing From NYC” list. Burmese is iffy here–I’m not even sure which restaurants if any are in business anymore. La Superior does serve panuchos, pavo escabeche and cochinita pibil, but it’s not strictly a Yucatecan restaurant. Laotian is completely absent.) I wanted to try them all.
Oakland, only a short car ride from our hotel in Berkeley, seemed to be the epicenter of Lao cooking. After a late lunch/early dinner at Tadich Grill and a nap induced by a few too many afternoon glasses of wine, it was already 8:30pm, too late for Green Papaya Deli, my first choice, but potentially ok for Vientian Café.
My only concern were the Yelp reviews, which I never take seriously for food quality but find useful for service quirks or issues not related to eating. Everyone mentioned how unsafe it was to park near the restaurant and how sketchy the neighborhood was. I don’t tend to take these cautions seriously; I read similar nonsense about places in Puerto Rico that were perfectly fine. Then again, I always think back to Vancouver, B.C. and getting everything stolen from our rental car because I didn’t take bad vibes seriously.
The door was locked when I ran up hoping for takeout. I was let in and the door was re-locked. I’m not sure if this was because it was the end of the night or if they always keep the door locked. The only other time I’ve seen this practice was at La Peniche in New Orleans where they also kept a machete near the door—if I’m correct, because there had a been a rash of robberies not because the Marigny is a particularly dangerous area. James insisted he heard gun shots while waiting in the car. Who knows? Maybe we’d just been in Berkeley too long and had gotten all soft and jumpy.
Knowing we were flying out in less than 12 hours, I only ordered two things from the menu, which was overwhelmingly Thai. The only thing I knew I had to try was the beef larb. Very different from the Thai style, the meat is raw, tripe is mixed in and there is nearly an equal amount of whole mint leaves and fat rings of green onions to irregularly chopped beef bits. Spicy for sure, herbal, and also bitter, much more so than the Thai style I’m accustomed to. I don’t know what that’s coming from, if it’s an unidentified herb or a side effect of the fermented fish sauce.
I almost never lame out on food, but after days of popping Pepto-Bismol tablets to keep the inexplicable nausea that started on the flight to San Francisco and lasted the entire trip under control I went with the counter woman’s suggestion of rare beef instead of raw. After reading up a bit, I don’t think cooked meat was the abomination I originally thought it was. Here’s a fancy version of the larb from a great blog I’d nearly forgotten about, written by a Laotian chef in Spain.
There is no doubt where the papaya salad gets its predominant funk from, and that’s the above mentioned padaek. Thankfully, we were checking out the next morning. I can’t imagine our hotel’s housekeeper being pleased with the foul, dirty smelling Styrofoam container left in the garbage (wrapped in plastic). As is often the case, the taste is much milder than the smell, more of a robust saltiness you associate with the sea. “Five or six chiles?” the counterwoman asked. “How you would eat it,” was my response hoping she wasn’t a baby palate. The heat was sharp and forceful, but nothing that a blob of sticky rice couldn’t temper. The most unusual part of the Lao style salad was that it came with a separately bagged up pile of fresh rice noodles, which provided the same softening effect as the sticky rice. I liked the contrast between crunch and chew.
I only regret not being able to order more things like the duck salad and Lao sausages…and having to toss out the unfinished remains of this meal. I just couldn’t justify packing such messy food in our suitcases even though we did do just that with Sichuan leftovers from our last lunch in Hong Kong.
Vientian Café * 3801 Allendale Ave., Oakland, CA