Mekong crossing

Vientiane, named after the capital of Laos that sits across the Mekong River from Thailand, specializes, not surprisingly, in Laotian and Thai cuisine. The food of Laos is, of course, not heavily represented in the Sacramento-area restaurant scene, and places like Vientiane should thus be of interest to the more curious and adventurous diner.

The food here is good, but it isn’t easy to mark where Thai food ends and Laotian begins. Perhaps because the two nations share a border, their cuisines are also naturally similar. Only a few dishes on the menu had the word “Lao” related to them, and then it was through the vague phrase “with Lao spices.” Mainly, the menu features familiar Thai standards (lard nar, tom kha gai, tom yam goong, satay, etc.) and more generally described items such as BBQ chicken, Asian sausage, roasted garlic quail and drunken noodles.

Vientiane is situated in the former location of the late, great Mexican restaurant El Mariachi, and the new owners have opted to retain the faux Spanish-style roofing and cascading plastic flora along the back wall, which provides a comforting sense of postmodern incongruity to the Laotian dining experience. And I don’t know if it was intentional, but on the night I was there the internal temperature seemed reminiscent of a tropical jungle, which—coupled with ragingly hot food and ample stores of ice-cold “Beer Lao"—enabled that wonderful situation where you simultaneously fan the flames with food and put them out with beer.

We started off with a nice green papaya salad, which again raised the question of Southeast Asian culinary distinctions. This dish seems not to differ much—whether the restaurant is Vietnamese, Thai or Laotian. Vientiane’s version was exemplary, mainly due to the flavor of the dressing. Shredded unripe papaya, cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts were steeped in the flavors of fresh chilies, fish sauce, lime and garlic. Like an overture, it introduced what were to be the main culinary themes of the evening.

BBQ chicken consisted of whole drumsticks and breast pieces, which had a hint of curry served with a slightly sweet and spicy dipping sauce in which garlic and fish sauce were again dominating flavors. Though the chicken was actually a bit bland, it was great with the sauce.

Roasted garlic quail was served with the same sauce, but was in less need of it. Generously coated with garlic and adequately salty, the quail was delicious and was roasted crispy enough that you could crunch up most of the smaller bones like potato chips. I consider that a good thing.

As we dug into the Asian sausage, advertised as being made from pork, lemon grass, garlic, fish sauce and chilies, the words which naturally emerged from our mouths were mainly “crazy,” “interesting” and “freaky.” These aren’t words typically used in food reviewing, but really, I couldn’t tell if I was experiencing an entirely new flavor profile or if there was something wrong with it.

But all was redeemed by the night’s star dish: drunken noodles. No, there wasn’t anything surprising or unique about the dish; it was just an awesome and classic combination of flavors done well. Thick and soft chunks of rice noodles were interlaced with oversized slices of hot green chilies, small savory chicken niblets, whole wilted basil leaves and lime wedges for individual fine-tuning. Just a great dish with which to max out your spicy food purge potential, and a great excuse for another “Beer Lao.”

I guess in the end what seemed to distinguish this Laotian cuisine was the preponderance of barbecued or roasted meats served with sweet chili sauce for dipping. However, the menu is huge, and in just one visit I left large areas unexplored. Particularly, the noodle soups with "Lao spices" are beckoning me to return and hone my understanding of the elusive cuisine of that country with the famous stupas—Laos.