First, a plug: Join me as I welcome food blogger and Fullerton native Eddie Lin to Orange County this Saturday. The writer behind Deep End Dining, a blog dedicated to eating the strangest foods on the planet, will be signing copies of his new Lonely Planet book on the subject at the Annex, 2204 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 836-8727. Reading to start at 1 p.m; free chapulines and balut (which is to say, dried grasshoppers and duck embryos) for everyone!
About the strangest dish at Vientiane Tha Laos Restaurant in Garden Grove is the fried frog legs, which come paired with a sauce reminiscent of black-bean broth—crunchy, zesty, but really not that weird. This is the only Laotian restaurant left in Orange County, and I held off reviewing it for years because it didn’t match up to the late Dee Dee in Anaheim. But multiple blogger raves have brought it business and pushed the owners to improve the quality of their small menu—better meat cuts, fresher herbs and more of a focus on Laotian offerings instead of Thai.
The Thai options are still there, and it’s worth a try just to see the difference in cooking styles. The yellow curry comes with the expected bamboo shoots and basil leaves but tastes murkier, earthier. Similarly tweaked is the green papaya salad—the Laotian version burns as much as its Thai cousin but is much more pungent because of the use of shrimp paste instead of fish sauce. Absolutely electric and not for the faint of palate.
But really: go Laotian. All orders at Vientiane should begin with sticky rice, which eaters traditionally ball up and use to sponge up sauces. Don’t worry: The grains won’t break up, instead acting like sturdy injera bread. Diners at the restaurant’s four tables ask for wicker baskets of the stuff, and most also get at least one order of mok pa, a type of fish tamale in which the meat is steamed inside a banana leaf, bones and all, until it nearly jellies—brilliant. You also eat jellied meat in the nam ka in the form of pork skin, but the gelatinous nature of the dish is counterbalanced by crispy, lemongrass-tinged sour sausages and toasted rice lurking at the bottom. The raw shrimp—butterflied, served cold, and topped with cabbage and dried chiles—isn’t as furiously flavored as the best aguachile, but it comes pretty darn close.
Contradictory, jumbled, but ultimately making delicious sense: This is Laotian food, and you can only find it at Vientiane. Go now, and write a nice review on Facebook to push them toward further greatness.
Vientiane Thai Laos Restaurant, 10262 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, (714) 530-7523.
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This column appeared in print as "Local Lao."