All in the family
Vientiane Restaurant1001 Jefferson Blvd.
West Sacramento, CA 95691
Vientiane Restaurant, which serves Thai and Lao food in a section of West Sacramento that’s otherwise largely populated by deeply unpromising motels, has long had an exalted reputation. Alas, I’d never made it there (one time I tried to go and it was closed), and then sometime last summer the mom-and-pop owners decided to retire and go back to Laos. I thought my chance finally had passed, but no: The restaurant has remained open and some relatives, trained by the original owners, have taken over the management.
Having only driven by before, I can’t speak to whether the interior is different, but there’s a shiny new sign I don’t remember from before out front. The space inside is fairly spare, but enlivened with pretty woven tablecloths and an odd indoor tiled roof extending over the back area where the cash register is. On a Saturday night, it was all but empty, which is a shame because the food is absolutely delicious. As I say, I can’t compare it to the previous owners’ work in the kitchen, but the vibrant flavors and careful cooking seem to indicate that good work was done in training the present staff.
Service, on the other hand, could use a little boost. It’s not that it’s bad, but our server—who seemed to be the teen-aged relative of the owners—was shy and often unsure of herself. Though these are qualities with a certain charm—far better than surliness—our interactions felt a bit awkward.
The line between the Thai and the Lao items on the menu sometimes can be a little blurry. Not surprisingly, since the two countries are adjacent, the cuisines have a lot of overlap; sometimes the main difference seems to be in the spelling of otherwise familiar menu items. There’s also a clear Vietnamese influence at work. We started off, however, with a familiar item from Thai restaurants: tom kha gung, a shrimp soup with coconut milk. I often find these soups a bit dull, but my husband loves tom-kha anything, so we got it with shrimp. Was I ever in for a surprise. The soup was, in a word, awesome: tingling with flavor, very light on the coconut milk and a perfect balance of tanginess with an undercurrent of heat. The shrimps were tender, and the cilantro added a green spark of freshness. I sprinkled some rather innocuous-looking dried-chili flakes from among our tray of condiments on the table, and that took the broth from pleasantly piquant to holy-cow hot—and I mean that in a good way.
Stuffed chicken wings arrived shortly thereafter, bringing a contrasting savory note and lots of black pepper. Beating the product of Buffalo all to pieces, these wings were less chicken parts than an excuse to stretch crispy chicken skin around more ground-pork filling than would seem possible. The filling was infused with black pepper and notes of fish sauce, as well as some glass noodles that added a textural contrast to this meaty and substantial appetizer.
The whole meal was a study in contrasts. We next tried a whole-fried pomfret, smothered in a chili-spiked tomato sauce and topped with a jaunty slice of carrot to represent its eye. (Its real eyes were there, of course, under the sauce.) In this dish, heat dominated. I loved the crunchy texture of the fried fish and the mild flesh, but the sauce was utterly searing. I know people say “sinus-clearing” about hot things, and it’s kind of a cliché, but I could actually feel the insides of my cheekbones aching minutes after I’d eaten. I liked the dish a lot, but potential diners should be warned.
We also had a mild dish of amethyst, sweet Chinese eggplant topped with ground pork and basil and a smooth brown sauce, which was deeply savory. It was nice over rice, though I was sorry that the kitchen had (according to our server) turned off the sticky-rice maker; instead, we had regular steamed rice, which was perfectly fine.
We didn’t really need more food, but we rounded out the dinner anyway with a plate of garlic quail, burnished the color of teak with a sticky, sweet and peppery sauce and studded with uncountable slices of garlic. The fried birds under the sauce were crispy, though the flesh was maybe just a touch dry. In places, the tiny little bones were fried enough to just be crunchy extras, like some kind of birdy bacon or, on a more exalted note, the ortolans that were once a delicacy for French aristocrats.
The setting of Vientiane may not exactly be Versailles, but the food is well worth a trip. The characteristic flavor profile of Southeast Asian cooking—spicy, salty, sweet, sour—is all in evidence here, and in every dish we tried the balance tilted in a different direction, making for a meal of tasty contrasts. Whatever family lore about cooking was passed on in the ownership change, evidently the lessons have stuck.