I dragged Mr. K along to a Meetup lunch with the infamous Bay Area Noodle Whores, a group of fanatical and devoted pastitutes who are on a perpetual quest to find the perfect bowl of ramen, pho, soup noodles, laksa, dongchimi guksu, mac n cheese, and the currently uber-trendy spaghetti and meatballs. We joined this group of intrepid diners for a Kravin’ Kao lunch (big bowls of steaming soup noodles) at Vientiane Cafe, a tiny hole in the wall that is deep in the heart of East Oakland. This family run Lao/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant opened in 2002, and the oldest child Anna Phannavong, took over the restaurant in early 2014. It’s smack in the middle of a transitional residential area that feels somewhat dicey and rough, even in the light of day. The restaurant has expanded since my last visit to take up the bottom floor of a converted home.
Our table of 11 took up most of the small dining area off the main room, and Mr. K and I frequently had to stand up to move our seats to allow servers access into the cramped room. It’s very cozy… I have had Lao food at Champa Garden also in Oakland, so a few of the dishes on the Lao specialties menu looked familiar. The fried rice ball salad, Nam Kao ($7.95) is a standout dish at this restaurant. It doesn’t look like anything special, you might think it is just fried rice, but it is so much more than the sum of its parts and is literally bursting with fresh flavors and unexpected textures. The cooking method is laborious and involves seasoning a batch of cooked rice with red curry paste, sugar, salt, and grated coconut, and then forming the mixture into tightly packed large rice balls to be coated with eggs and then deep-fried to form crispy rice balls. Prior to serving, they are broken into little chunks and mixed with preserved pork, green onions, and lime juice.. This version seems to be panfried again because the rice is so addictively crispy around the edges and sticks together in densely chewy crunchy bits. When you take a scoop of the rice and wrap it up in a crisp leaf of lettuce topped with pungent fresh herbs and drizzle it with the piquant sauce, your mouth is filled with a riot of textures and bursting with brilliant flavor that is so, so good!
The Egg rolls ($7.95) were small rolls filled with silver noodles, black mushrooms, carrot and ground pork. They are fried until the thick skins are blistered, crisp and crunchy while maintaining a slightly sticky al dente consistency, then sliced into bite sized pieces. They are served with sweet and sour sauce, steamed rice noodles, lettuce and fresh herbs to roll up with. I piled a small mound of the noodles into the lettuce, then some of the roll bits, drizzled some of the sauce, then rolled it up with cilantro and mint, took bites and swooned.
We shared plates of the Angel Wings ($6.50), deep fried chicken wings, fried with chili sauce and lemon. These were excellent, the skins were crisp and coated with the sweet, sour and spicy sauce that was finger licking good. All three of these appetizers are mandatory if you go.
Someone at the other end of the table ordered Sa Ooa ($2.50 ea), baked Laotian sausage made of ground pork, onion, lemon grass, chili and lemon leaves. I ran over to take this picture, but sadly, the dish did not make the rotation of the table.
Couldn’t resist ordering the Kao Poun ($7.95) when I saw the description on the menu, made with thin vermicelli noodles served in a mild curry sauce with chicken (and I opted for no pork blood). It is described to be a Laos Laksa, a rich, lightly spiced, coconut curry soup. In this version, pounded fish is boiled with kaffir lime leaves, galangal, coconut milk and pork fried with chili creating a fragrant and delicious broth. I was smitten with this soothing and addictive dish, and enjoyed the rich flavors.
My neighbor Tess had the Khao Soi ($7.95), which is served Lao style with big rice noodles in soup topped with ground pork sautéed in chili paste. We had this in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, which is a markedly different version, made with a rich gravy and served with two types of noodles, soft wide egg noodles that are topped with a nest of crispy fried noodles and look like this. She let me take a sip and it was surprisingly mild, despite the fiery red color of the broth.
Mr. K is never happy unless he has the opportunity to check out the Chicken noodle soup, pho ga ($6.95) a classic bowl filled with thin egg noodles (his choice, the dish normally is served with rice noodles), topped with green onion and fried garlic in a rich simple broth.
I’ll just say that I thought my bowl was the best of the lot, and loved all of the appetizers that we tried. I am glad that I got to try the sublime rice ball salad and steaming bowls of noodles at this tiny little outpost and to know that this is just a few stops off the freeway from our house. The Noodlewhores have plans to continue their quest, so expect a future visit to another Laotian restaurant soon.