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By Charles Lam
Photo by Matt OttoA couple of Anaheim Thai buffets offer bracing Laos-style soups, salads and beef jerky, but Orange County's only Laotian diner is the curiously titled Dee Dee, stranded in a strip mall just north of Little Arabia. But where the previous Laotian eateries failed, Dee Dee thrives, not just because of the food but also because it's a nexus for the local Laotian community. Business cards of local Laotian entrepreneurs are stacked across a Buddha-centered counter; the windows display posters announcing the next appearance of a Hmong pop star. Earlier this year, Dee Dee's owners organized the largest Southland gathering for Songkan, the traditional festival that celebrates the Laotian New Year.
The majority of Dee Dee's 95-item menu, however, skews toward Thai cuisine to attract non-Laotians, favorites such as pad Thai, chicken and beef satays, assorted curries, and pineapple fried rice. But ordering these meals is an insult—you're in the only Laotian restaurant in Southern California, for chrissakes, so indulge in a diet that combines Thai spice with Vietnamese lightness and a bit of Burmese pungency. Imagine pad Thai mixed with red curry, and you have the mee kathi: a milky, wonderfully sweet soup weighed down with a shearing of rice noodles, ground pork, mint leaves and peanuts. Beware of the toasted red chiles innocuously floating across the broth, though: if you crack one open, out spills seeds that transform the formerly gentle potage into edible fire.
Other Dee Dee dishes are similarly foreign to your imagination but familiar within the confines of your mouth. Deep-fried quail is as good as you'll ever gnaw on the tiny bird: ferocious with garlic and pepper overtones but with the quail meat still exhibiting an oily, plump essence. Lao-style pork sausage—whether sliced into fried rice, pared with ginger and chile stumps in the sweat-creating yum som moo salad, or stuffed with lemongrass and eaten as finger food—is slightly spicy, lean and bests the greatest Chinese barbecued pigs. Dee Dee also concocts a series of rustically divine meals collectively known as mok: fish, chicken or bamboo shoots marinated in coconut milk and steamed alongside mint and banana leaves that imprint a faint plantain taste. And dessert comes in the form of carbonated, Christmas-colored (red or green?) syrup drinks and sticky rice with mango, a combination that makes you wish every Orange County city had its own Laotian joint.
So why the county paucity of Laotian grub? Our most prized Vietnam War-era warriors, after all, were a sizable minority in Orange County during the 1980s. But many of these refugees moved to the Central Valley after the 1987 Whittier-Narrows quake, according to the 1997 demographic study The Ethnic Quilt: Population Diversity in Southern California. Over the past decade, once-bustling Laotian markets and restaurants either switched to a Thai theme or simply shuttered down. Now there's only Dee Dee, Sundara Lao Market and Vientiane Market, all in Anaheim. Damn quakes.
DEE DEE RESTAURANT, 311 S. BROOKHURST, ANAHEIM, (714) 956-2997.