Asian Café: Remember to hydrate

Whether you’re the type to obsessively sift through the wares at the Del Paso Heights-area Thrift Town, shop for discount porn at the Goldie’s Outlet or even work at this very paper that you’re reading, it’s likely you’ll never stumble across Asian Café. The restaurant is located on a largely residential street in a North Sacramento business complex that houses a supermarket—one that looks more like a place to take shelter from post-apocalyptic zombies than a spot to pick up a gallon of milk.

Consider it a destination, then: Asian Café serves both Thai and Lao food, but forget about the Thai dishes, and go for the Lao specialties. Owner Khampou Luangkeo’s son Koony says his mother only serves Thai because it was on the menu when she bought the place from the previous owner four years ago. Still, she has a good touch with the Thai dishes, especially the pad Thai—perhaps because she’s originally from Savannakhet, a city in western Laos that is this close to Thailand.

But it’s the Lao dishes that win out here, relying on flavoring staples that include fish sauce, lime juice, galangal and lemongrass, lots of herbs, and chilies—how could you go wrong? Unless, however, you are one of the unfortunate types who thinks cilantro tastes like soap or dirt—then you’re S.O.L.

One of the most common dishes in Lao cuisine is larb, a meal of chopped meat laced with herbs, chilies and lime. It’s not a subtle dish—larb hits you over the head with herbal flavors and lots of salt—rather, it’s a rustic offering that stretches a little bit of meat a long way. At Asian Café, the larb is stretched even further by adding optional offal add-ons—various organ meats, entrails, etc.—to three versions of the dish: beef with tripe, chicken with gizzards, or pork with pork skin. Each is delicious in its own way. The chicken gizzards are almost indistinguishable from the meat, and all of it has a charred, smoky flavor, while the small bits of “bible” tripe in the beef larb are tender and add a hint of the barnyard. And, if you’re an avid carnivore, the restaurant staff is happy to serve the beef rare or medium. The pork larb is soft and, again, very salty—remember to hydrate. Good thing the service is quick and efficient, and your water glass will stay full.

The beef salad offers a gentle respite from aggressive flavors, comprising medium-thick, chewy slices of eye of round with red bell pepper, chopped iceberg and hot raw jalapeño—OK, gentle for a Laotian dish, anyway. The dressing, according to Koony, is simply “fish sauce, chili paste and lime, same as the other sauces,” but somehow his mom makes this one taste entirely different than the others.

Papaya salad is another signature dish in both Thai and Lao cuisine; the Lao version is typically stronger and fishier (are you sensing a pattern here?). In fact, papaya salad is so beloved, I once witnessed a papaya-eating salad contest at a Lao New Year festival, although no one could eat it fast enough for a winner to be declared. Asian Café also makes the salad with cucumber—a summery, fragrantly green option.

The single best dish at Asian Café is the nam kao tod, a crispy-rice entree. Nearly every culture that eats rice has a meal built around the crusty rice layer at the bottom of the pot. In Iran it’s called chelo with tahdig, and of course the Spanish have paella. Asian Café’s nam kao tod is made by taking ground pork, letting it bake on the bottom of the pan with the rice, and then stirring and frying the whole thing up fresh the next day with dried Thai chilies and scallions.

It may be hidden, but once you step out of its drab surroundings and into the cheery oasis of Asian Café, you’ll find out what the neighborhood denizens already know: Lao dishes are where it’s at.