’Tis Dining Month, the tastiest time of year! This means we’re dishing up fun and fascinating food content throughout October. Dig in, Milwaukee!
Looking for new spots to try? Lori Fredrich will be dishing out her top five picks in 20 different dining categories throughout the month of October.
Most people recognize Thai staples: Jasmine rice, green curry, tom yum soup and pad thai. But what about Lao fare? Fresh herbs, hearty soups, grilled meats and signature sticky rice are just a few of the hallmarks of a cuisine which has – for many years – taken a back seat to Thai food. But that's no longer the case.
In fact, if you want to learn about either cuisine, you need only to look to the new crop of young chefs who are proudly cooking up dishes that represent both countries.
If you always order pad thai or volcano chicken, consider this an invitation to branch out and try something new.
1. Vientiane Noodle Shop
Vientiane Noodle Shop is among a growing number of restaurants that does a great job of showcasing essential Lao dishes – including spicy papaya salad, deep-fried marinated quail and pad burapa – which all-too-often go unnoticed. It's worth the drive to Silver City for their house-made Lao sausage (sai oua); it’s delightfully crisp on the outside, fabulously porky within and redolent of fresh herbs including lemongrass and dill.
2. Sweet Basil
If the full flavors of street food are what you’re after, you’ll find them in spades at Sweet Basil, which offers playful, modern takes on Lao and Thai classics. Order pad garpow, a classic Thai-style street stir fry that’s spicy and full of flavor from the addition of holy basil. Or embark on a fun fusion-filled adventure with jeow bong noodles, a dish that captures the flavors of Laos in an unconventional way (ramen noodles tossed with jeow bong and mixed vegetables). The jeow bong (a pounded paste used like a condiment) is rich with the flavors of chilies, galangal, garlic and fish sauce.
Can’t decide? You can’t go wrong with the OG Platter, a feast for two featuring chicken wings (six), Lao-style grilled steak, Lao sausage, papaya salad, fresh pork rinds and sticky rice. Be sure to add a jeow sampler (flavorful Lao condiments that taste great with everything, including sticky rice!) Be sure to eat it Lao style: with your hands!
3. Rice N Roll Bistro
Artful, thoughtfully prepared sushi at a Thai restaurant? Traditional Thai fare at a sushi restaurant? Why yes. In fact, you’ll find both at Rice N Roll, where the owners have brought both their Thai heritage and years of restaurant experience to the proverbial table. They’ve also brought some traditional Thai dishes to the ttable that you simply won’t find elsewhere.
Take the khaosoy, for instance. It’s is everything you’d want in a Thai curry, from sweet and spicy to creamy and complex. There’s beautiful texture from both the crispy and soft noodles, plus plenty of flavor from shallots, scallions and a boiled egg (you can get it with your choice of proteins, though it’s excellent with shrimp). Even better, the recipe is based on a traditional dish from Northern Thailand (and adapted from Chef JJ Lert’s mother) that’s difficult to find, even in a large city like Bangkok.
4. Mekong Cafe
Mekong’s menu showcases myriad dishes that illustrate the liberal intermingling of cultures in Laos and Thailand. You’ll find Thai stand-outs like mee ka tee, a delicious dish that incorporates the flavors central to red curry in a Lao dish that’s bright, textural and redolent with chiles and lemongrass. But you’ll also find salapao pork (inspired by the Vietnamese markets in Laos), hand-shaped steamed buns filled with pork, cabbage, hard boiled eggs and sweet sausage. The dough is slightly sweet and supple, and they’re a natural companion for one of Mekong’s spicy jeow (versatile condiments that can be eaten with just about anything!).
If you like coconut and appreciate the delightfully chewy texture inherent to desserts like Japanese mochi, save room for Mekong’s kanom nab, a delightful Lao dessert featuring caramelized coconut stuffed in glutinous rice dough and steamed in banana leaves. It’s delightful.
It’s not hyperbole to say I’ve not met a dish on the Thum menu that I didn’t love. But classics like the chicken larb are truly representative of what makes the cuisine shine. The “meat salad” incorporates salty, sour and sweet, but still remains deeply savory with fresh, vegetal notes from plentiful mint and citrusy cilantro. It’s served with sticky rice for scooping (yes, you can eat it with your hands) and fresh vegetables for crunch. So, so good.
If you’ve eaten through their menu and want to get a feel for Chef Vanmanivong’s ability to seamlessly integrate Lao flavors into creative dishes, reach for the restaurant’s Pho-rench Dip which showcases amazingly tender brisket topped with provolone cheese, pickled and fresh jalapeños. It’s served on a grilled Rocket Baby baguette alongside Thum’s 72-hour pho bone broth for dipping. Add the fresh herbs and a squeeze of lime before you take your first bite. It’s amazing.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.