A little taste of Laos in downtown Greensboro
By: Jennifer Zeleski
Eating at a restaurant alone, just like traveling alone, is a solo venture that can feel awkward. It’s different than curling up on your couch with a pint of ice cream while your apartment is empty, or grabbing a quick and quiet lunch in the middle of a workday. After recent experiences asking for a table of one, I have found a reoccurring indulgence while I’m on my own: Asian comfort food.
Sticky rice, spring rolls, flavorful broths – you name it, I’m in. Luckily, Lao Restaurant + Bar in downtown Greensboro has just what I needed on a Sunday night.
The interior of the restaurant is crisp white, with the infamous narrow hallway toward the restaurant’s dining area. The space was the original home of Crafted, Art of the Taco, which has since moved across the street. The bar is expansive with an elegant marble counter, and a lengthy list of cocktails and draft beer as a backdrop. Their Triad Margarita Wars runner-up certificate is also proudly on display, in honor of their second place Thai Chili Coconut Margarita, which is still available upon request.
The atmosphere is ideal for an upscale dining experience without breaking the bank, as well as bringing a group of friends or family together in the heart of Greensboro’s downtown. But the real winner wasn’t just the design of the space; it was the reason everyone shows up: the menu.
There is an art to ordering the right appetizer when you’re dining alone, and with so many options it was difficult to decide. Did I want something that only I would enjoy, or did I venture out into unknown territory? I chose both routes. My first order was the moneybags, which stood out from the list next to tod man pa (fried spicy tuna bites) and seen lod (crispy, over-dried seasoned beef or pork strips).
The moneybags were crispy wontons stuffed with cream cheese and imitation crab. There were six in an order, the perfect amount to share, and each came neatly wrapped with a string of seaweed to hold their shape. They truly looked like moneybags, similar to what you might imagine on a cartoon or in a child’s video game, but their look was overshadowed by their taste. Each one had a crisp exterior but was soft and creamy on the inside. Mixed in with the cream cheese was a small amount of onion that was reminiscent of French onion dip, but so much better. They weren’t greasy despite being deep-fried, and the fish sauce for dipping offered a layer of sweetness. It might seem like an odd pairing: crab, cream cheese, onion, and a sweet dipping sauce, but each component made them live up to their name. I stopped myself from eating all of them on my own but knew I would be back to share with friends in the future. I’d never had strictly Laotian food, which is very similar to Thai and Vietnamese but featuring dishes that are more distinct than others in their ingredients and overall flavors. One that caught my eye was the sakoo sai moo, described as a lettuce wrap with poached tapioca dumplings, filled with pickled peanuts and pork with palm sugar. I loved dumplings but had no idea what to expect for a poached tapioca exterior. It was probably a good thing that I had no clear expectations because they looked slightly intimidating when they arrived at the table.
For lack of a better term, they looked like a small orb, each one steaming on several crisp leaves of romaine lettuce. They were very sticky, and it took a little maneuvering with chopsticks and fingers to get them onto a piece of lettuce. They were gummy and chewy, but not overwhelmingly sweet like one might expect. It reminded me of mochi, a Japanese rice cake made with sticky rice, but warm and stuffed with groundnuts and pork rather than a sweet filling or ice cream. They took a little while to get used to and really relied on the lettuce to create a balance of texture. They were nothing like my idea of dumplings but were an experience nonetheless. I would suggest them to adventurous eaters and be wary of trying to share; it might be ideal for someone looking for something small rather than a full entrée.
What’s the best food to cure a cold, mend a broken heart, or to satisfy a craving? Soup. We’ve finally made it to a season where soup is a heartwarming dish that can be satisfied with a crock-pot, or at your favorite Asian restaurant. The khao piak sen might become your new favorite. A thick, ginger-based broth topped with crispy garlic and scallions, and protein (chicken, tofu or shrimp). Did I mention the homemade rice noodles in each bowl? In honor of comfort food, I chose the chicken, with similar expectations of pho or ramen.
This soup was all its own.
The broth was packed with flavor and saltiness that I would never be able to immolate at home, even if I tried. Each bite warmed the soul, and the noodles melted in your mouth but held enough of their texture that they didn’t make the broth clumpy or congealed. The chicken was white meat and added just enough protein to be filling. There weren’t any vegetables added, but you didn’t miss them. After realizing I was almost done with the bowl, I decided it was the Laotian version of one of my favorite Pennsylvania comfort foods, chicken and dumplings. Exactly what you need when the temperatures start to drop, and a comfy blanket just won’t do. One bonus to eating soup alone? No uncomfortable noodle-eating eye contact. (Slurping in public is still up for debate.)
There are a handful of restaurants that I leave knowing I will highly suggest to others, and this was one of them. I was disappointed when I finished my dishes because I didn’t want the experience to end. There were details in every dish that was noticeable and exceptional, especially when it meant handmade, well combined or neatly plated.
If getting one roundtrip ticket to Laos is a little out of your price range (or comfort level), go to Lao Restaurant + Bar for your comfort food fix. A lonesome venture is good for you, even if it means not crossing continents.
Jennifer Zeleski is a student contributor to YES! Weekly. She is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Communications at High Point University.