Pakse Café returns to a new location as Lao Kitchen
The much-missed Pakse Café in the defunct shopping center at the corner of Florida Street and Freeman Mill Road in Greensboro was not, as Eric Ginsburg once observed, the kind of place you went for atmosphere.
But it was the Triad’s closest equivalent to Southeast Asian street food. Albeit, more like that of the Laotian capital, Vientiane than Saigon, and despite the Vietnamese sandwiches that sparked intense foodie debates as to whether Pakse’s or those at Banh Mi Saigon on Gate City Boulevard were better.
The name has changed, but that food is back in a cleaner and safer Greensboro location, nestled behind Alounemay Asian Market at 2601 W. Gate City Blvd., where Pakse’s former owner Mi Sinbaualay and her daughter Alexandra recently opened The Lao Kitchen. The Alounemay entrance faces Maywood Street and the Lao Kitchen one is around back, but the establishments share the building and are connected by an interior door.
It’s small, with a few communal benches and tables, but brightly lit, clean, friendly, and decorated with attractive art. Signage displays familiar items like pad thai and basil chicken, as well as economical deals like two large fresh spring rolls for $2.99 or six fried wings for $4.99.
William Warren’s 2004 book Bangkok, written by an American who’s lived there since 1959, claims most of what’s called Thai food in the United States is actually Lao. Mi Sinbaualay is on vacation in Paris, so I couldn’t ask her, but I recall her saying something similar at her old location. During my visit to Lao Kitchen, I noticed three things distinguishing it from other local Thai restaurants: sticky rice, papaya salad and larb.
Larb and papaya salad can be found on Thai menus throughout the Triad, but typically taste quite different. Sticky rice, served in a cellophane-wrapped ball and eaten with one’s bare hands (the “sticky” refers to how it sticks together, not to your fingers), is a Laotian staple. While “sticky” or glutinous rice is common in Northern Thailand, a 2015 Smithsonian article claims that Lao people eat more of it than anyone else in the world, and that this is why they sometimes refer to themselves as “luk khao niaow,” meaning “children of sticky rice.”
I ordered larb to eat there and papaya salad to-go. The latter, which I’m still eating as I write this article, consists of the usually shredded papaya, chilies, tomato and cilantro, but with a side of pork skins rather than peanuts. Several old Yelp reviews of Pakse Café speculated these were a Tarheel influence, but my Thai-Laotian friend Toune called their use “distinctly Laotian.”
So is the padaek, the signature Lao fish sauce, chunkier and more pungent than Thai and Vietnamese varieties. Alexandra Sinbaualay told me that this sauce is her mother’s secret family recipe and only used with papaya. Several online articles form food magazines describe Laotian papaya salad as being “sour” rather than “spicy.” Regardless of descriptors, it’s delicious, and I’m going to get another bowl before writing the next paragraph.
The larb, a salad with minced pork or chicken, was also less spicy than the Thai variety. Mine contained shredded pork and sliced pork liver, and I’m told the chicken variety uses chicken liver. As a liver-lover, I was fine with this. Stronger and with a quite different taste from the larb I’ve had elsewhere, but delicious.
Lovers of beef jerky are advised that Lao Kitchen sells the best I’ve ever had, a claim also made in several Yelp reviews. This variety, known in Lao as Sien Haeng, is homemade, with a flavor suggesting sugar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and padaek all went into the curing process. A very generous “appetizer” portion costs $5.99, but cups of it are $2 at the counter. As for the sandwiches, my $5 one with pâté and ham was a dollar more than its equivalent at Banh Mi Saigon and slightly less wonderful, but much better than the ones downtown restaurants peddle for twice the price.
Along with Lao coffee and Thai tea, Lao Kitchen also serves bubble tea and a drink made from raw fresh sugar cane, with no added ingredients. When you order it, they break off a piece of sugar cane and put it in what looks like an industrial juicer. Less sweet than I expected, but very refreshing.
I can’t write about the chicken dishes because I’ve not tried them yet, but I certainly intend to. I’m definitely going back soon, and already regret not getting more beef jerky.
Lao Kitchen is located at 2601 W. Gate City Blvd. It is open from 10 a.m. until 8:30 p.m., Monday-Thursday and from 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday.