You know what corner Thai joint makes the best tom yum, and thanks to Little Saigon, you've now consumed more pho in your adult life than instant ramen during your college years. You may even know where to get the best sadao salad in Long Beach's Cambodia Town. But around these parts, chances are your exposure to the cuisine of Laos—the landlocked country sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand—is limited to two, maybe three restaurants.
One of those will surely be Vientiane, a venerable hole-in-the-wall that has essentially represented Lao food in Orange County for years (save for a couple of mini-marts in Anaheim). On its menu are unabashed Lao dishes such as mok pa—a skin-on, bone-in freshwater fish hacked to pieces, curried, shoved and steamed inside a banana leaf—and a version of larb that is more, shall we say, complicated than the last time you had it at a Thai joint. Yes, those pieces of what look like offal in the larb are, in fact, offal. If Thai food is bright and broadly appealing like a Disney flick, Lao food can be funky, dark and complex like a Tim Burton art-house film.
Now comes Spicy Lao, a new-generation restaurant set in a former sushi bar that still thrives on the funk but keeps it simple. The menu is brief, with exactly 12 dishes—and that's if you count the crispy fried chicken wings twice (there's an original and a spicy version that's wok-tossed in garlic, sliced jalapeños and scallions). It might be because the kitchen staff is still experimenting, adding dishes to the lineup as they become more confident that people are going to like them. A few weeks ago, the restaurant posted a picture of a new pork-belly-and-egg stew called thom khem on its Instagram, announcing free samples of it that evening and posting, "Let us know if it's a keeper." These days, the stew is on the permanent menu and sells out every night.
Lao cuisine first-timers should start with sai kok, a homemade sausage of pork stuffed inside natural casing along with lemongrass, dried chile flakes and kaffir lime leaves. It's roasted over flames to char the skin to crispness, then sliced into bevels and served with a sweet tomato salsa it doesn't actually need. But since it's so packed with flavor, you'll want rice—either jasmine or, better yet, the sticky rice that's as much a staple of the Laotian diet as baguettes are to the French.
The starch is delivered in the traditional stout basket of woven reeds. Ball it up with your fingers and use it to pick up food with your hands. It has the clinging power of a thousand glue sticks and the absorptive properties of a sponge ideal for sopping up sauces. Since food sticks to it as though it were a charged electromagnet, it becomes utensil and delivery device for Spicy Lao's larb, a loose salad of minced pork or chicken tossed with lime juice, cilantro, shallots and green onions that, yes, has bits of offal in it. But more to the point, it harbors more diced Thai chiles than you're prepared for. It should be known that asking for "mild" at Spicy Lao is construed as "Lao mild," which is still at least three times hotter than what a Western palate can handle.
If you attempt the tum mak hoong, the Lao version of shredded papaya salad, know that any level of hotness will have flames leaping out of your mouth. But it's also in this dish that your nose detects the distinct funk of padaek (the Lao version of fish sauce). It's what darkens the tart papaya shreds to a dirty shade of brown, as well as amplifies the umami amidst the burn.
For a reprieve from the spicy, you can order the khao piek sen, a bowl of udon-sized handmade rice noodles that thickens its slow-cooked chicken broth to the consistency of gravy. But the better bowl of soup is the mee ka tee: pho noodles with bits of pork and ribbons of congealed pork blood in a coconut curry broth that's the perfect union of Thai tom kha gai and khao soi.
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Spicy Lao's most popular item seems to be the deep-fried curry pork ribs, but it takes a strong jaw to tear the chewy meat away from the bones. The sinh lot, deep-fried Lao pork jerky, is kinder, softer but just as crispy and served in chunky strips dusted in chile flakes. Yes, it's spicy. You're going to sweat. So wear a shirt you don't care about and maybe bring a terry-cloth towel before you deplete the restaurant's supply of paper napkins.
Spicy Lao, 8851 Garden Grove Blvd., Ste. 113, Garden Grove, (714) 867-6041; www.spicylao.com. Open Tues.-Thurs. & Sun., 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Dinner for two, $20-$30. No alcohol.