There’s been a fragrant wave of new Lao restaurants in recent months, with not one but three new BYOBs opening across Philadelphia with variations of warm beef jerky, chili-laced coconut stews, and crunchy green papaya salads that radiate with the tang of funky spice. And it feels like a recent development for a city whose population of Lao chefs has largely been relegated to cooking the more familiar — and perhaps less potent — flavors of Americanized Thai food.
But the origin story of newly opened Vientiane Bistro is, in fact, an old one. It goes back more than two decades, to a home kitchen in West Philly where a mother and her daughters cooked together, at first illegally as an unlicensed catering speakeasy in an effort to gain a foothold in their new country. It eventually was shut down by the city. But Daovy Panthavong, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1980 as a refugee from the civil war in Laos, overcame her early licensing issues and eventually opened a proper restaurant, Vientiane Cafe, on Baltimore Avenue in 2002. And she inevitably told her young American-born daughter, Sunny, weary from the all-day task of frying crispy jasmine rice cones for the popular naam salads, that she had it easy.
“She was always telling me how she had to swim across the Mekong River with my sister Manorack on her back, dodging bodies in the water in order to escape [to the Nong Khai refugee camp in Thailand],” Sunny recalls. “She was always reminding me how lucky I have it. And I’d always say, ‘OK, Mom, I’m sorry!’ "
Call it a parent’s guilt trip. Call it survival. But those kitchen lessons — and pride in Lao culture — clearly sank in. Vientiane Bistro is the next-generation chapter in the Panthavong story. Sunny, now 34, has grown up to open a BYOB in Kensington with her partner, Kong Tieu, essentially crafting a North Philly sibling to Vientiane Cafe in West Philly, now run by her sister and mother.
The Bistro sits almost hidden in the shadows of the Market-Frankford El on a stretch of Kensington Avenue that is still a bit north of the fast-gentrifying zones of the River Wards. But along with neighboring Cafe Pho Ga Thanh Thanh, a bare-bones destination renowned for its chicken pho, and excellent Thang Long across the street, these three restaurants have made this scruffy stretch of storefronts a legitimate food-lover’s hub. Tieu’s family owns the building, and a grant from the city helped make it possible, along with their life savings. And Vientiane, named for the capital of Laos, Daovy’s home town, is a charming little space done up in rustic wood-plank wainscoting, purple walls hung with embroidered red Lao tapestries, and dangling wicker baskets used to hold the warm bundles of sticky rice that are such an essential starch in Southeast Asian cuisine.
On a recent Friday evening, Vientiane Bistro was bustling and full with both Lao families and a diverse young crowd of beanie-capped millennials — full to the point that our reservation (my first on Kenzo Avenue!) was honored 20 minutes late. The service is outgoing and friendly here, if not necessarily organized. And the food arrived in fits and spurts that seemed to mimic the rumbling rhythm of the El above, with a long wait for anything, then a sudden rush of all the plates at once.
Once the food did arrive, however, we were delighted. And when one of those wicker cylinders of sticky rice comes to your table, take a steamy pinch of the rice and press it into a flat disk that can be wrapped around chunks of sai gak sausages, the glistening links made in house from pork belly, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves, that hit another level of flavor when dabbed with roasted green chili paste. A pad of sticky rice also is essential to accompany the warm and chewy strips of house-dried beef jerky encrusted in sweet soy and coriander, which comes with its own unique dark chili paste dip, thickened with peanut butter, sweet soy, and galangal that almost has the texture and fruity savor of spicy fig jam.
Lao cuisine, with aromatics of lemongrass, coconut milk, and fish sauce, shares obvious similarities with the cuisines of the countries that border it — Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. And most all local Lao restaurants, the Vientianes included, offer wide varieties of Thai classics. Vientiane Bistro’s chicken satay, for example, is one of my new favorites, the tender thigh meat fully marinated with turmeric and mushroom powder before it’s charcoal-grilled and paired with spicy peanut sauce.
But Lao food has an extra punch, an edgier heat and funky notes amped up by padeak, a fermented fish paste similar to Cambodian prahok, but perhaps a shade milder because landlocked Laos uses only freshwater fish. The most obvious example is the thum mak hoong, the famous green papaya salad that’s bruised with a mortar and pestle then soaked in a chili-fired lime juice marinade, padaek, and, for serious Lao eaters, salt-fermented crabs that give it an almost tidal glow.
These flavors have been in Philly for decades, usually tucked away on menus at Thai restaurants where Lao chefs were in the kitchen. Vientiane Cafe and Sa-Bai-Dee, an old favorite in Upper Darby, are two Lao-forward pioneer exceptions to the rule. But the sudden emergence of more restaurants showcasing Lao food as their prime mission is a reflection of that first generation of immigrant children now come of age. That’s the story at the new Laos Cafe on West Passyunk in South Philadelphia, where Kha Vorasarn’s minced duck laap salad and sausages have even bolder chili heat than Vientiane’s. It’s also the case at new Maliwan, which recently replaced Khmer Kitchen at Sixth and Morris, and which has a slightly milder touch that still leans Thai (though the fantastic grilled Lao steak is alone worth the visit).
At Vientiane Bistro, which sits somewhere between those two on the pungency spectrum, there is a wide range of classic dishes to explore what Lao cooking is all about. I’m always a fan of the laap salads, the minced protein of your choice (try the grilled beef here) tossed with tangy, spicy dressing and a dusting of roasted rice powder. But the crispy naam lettuce-wrap salad is the essential order, a blend of crunchy rice — fried into cones, then broken apart in a mortar — marinated with grated coconut and red curry tossed with fresh herbs in a citrusy dressing topped with crushed peanuts. Wrapped inside a crunchy rib of lettuce, so many textures and fresh flavors explode in one bite.
The garnish of a lettuce wrap, along with the sticky rice, is a common theme. I especially loved it with the deep-fried whole pompano (tod paa), whose silver-skinned flesh was scored into easily plucked diamonds of meat that, once wrapped up with ginger and lemongrass made for an addictive dunk in tangy tamarind dip.
Some of most distinctive dishes, though, are the soups and stews that are perfect for winter. The Khao poon “King Soup” is a coconut broth blushing with spicy red curry, mint, and galangal that gives its hearty brew, laced with rice vermicelli noodles, a gingery swagger. Snappy wood-ear mushrooms and sweet chunks of kabocha squash added a nice textural contrast to the vegetarian gang naw mai stew with fresh bamboo turned a deep forest green with the juice of yanang leaves.
The tom saap hot pot was yet another revelation. This soup, which arrived in a doughnut-shape pan that bubbled around a flaming hot pot chimney, is more a reflection of Laos' eastern border with Vietnam. The soup begins not unlike a pot of pho, with beef bones and brisket slow-steeping with aromatic spices like star anise, cinnamon, clove, and lemongrass. But then it takes a tart Lao turn with tamarind powder, lemon juice, and chilies, a sour and spicy twist that amplifies all the other flavors until they ring on my lips. This dish is one of the “secret" off-menu items at the original Vientiane Cafe in West Philly. But Sunny, eager to bring her own light touch to her new place, has made it a regular fixture on Vientiane Bistro’s menu.
“It’s time for Lao people to come out of their shell,” Sunny said. “And it’s happening across the country now, not just Philly. My generation is ready to make it happen. And it’s about time.”
2537 Kensington Ave., 267-703-8199; vientianebistro.com
There’s been a flavorful boomlet of Lao restaurants in recent months, and this cheerful new Kensington sibling to Vientiane Cafe, Philly’s Lao pioneer in West Philadelphia, is one of the best. It features a wide range of vividly seasoned Southeast Asian specialties, from crispy rice salad to garlicky housemade sausages and refreshing green papaya salads that bear the cuisine’s signature blend of sour, spice and fermented funk. The location sits just north of the River Wards’ more gentrified zones, but adds yet another bright destination (with Thai specialties, too) to a stretch of storefronts below the El on Kensington Avenue that already hosts two of the city’s best pho shops.
MENU HIGHLIGHTS House Lao jerky; satay; steamed dumplings; sticky tamarind chicken wings; crispy naam lettuce wraps; green papaya salad (thum mak hoong); tom saap lemongrass hot pot; sai gawk sausages; khaopoon “King Soup”; laap (beef); tod paa whole pompano with lettuce wrap; pad see eew noodles; mango sticky rice.
BYOB Cold Riesling or crisp lager beer is the best match for the spicy sour flavors of Lao food.
WEEKEND NOISE The room is small and lively when full, often with families. But it’s reliably pleasant for easy conversation backed by an unexpected Top 40 soundtrack.
IF YOU GO Three-course lunch specials Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Entire menu also available, 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Closed Sunday.
Dinner entrées, $14-$20.
All major cards.
Reservations suggested weekends.
Not wheelchair accessible. There are three steps at the entrance; bathrooms are not wheelchair accessible.
Street parking only.