The public has spoken, Lao’d and clear
Fresh off YES! Weekly’s Triad’s Best, Lao Restaurant + Bar is basking in the glory of being named Best New Restaurant in Guilford County. The Laotian restaurant opened with much anticipation and excitement last summer, and they’ve been feeling the love. Fifty guests of a recent sold-out Chef’s Table at Lao prove that even further.
Here’s a little of how it went down (paraphrasing):
Me: I’d love to feature you at a Chef’s Table in the future.
Vonne: But I’m not a chef.
Me: It matters, not. This is about you, your restaurant and your delicious food.
Vonne: Let’s do it on Monday, May 6.
Vonne the next morning (less than 12 hours later): Uh oh, I messed up. We’re closed on Mondays. Ooops. But maybe we can still do it, depending on ticket sales.
Me: Well, it’s sold out at 25 tickets so…now what?
Vonne: Add 25 more tickets!
And in the end, the Lao Chef’s Table, with the additional 25 tickets, was sold out in 24 hours. Owner Vonne Keobouala closed her restaurant for all 53 of us as she and her team gave us an exclusive peek at some of her favorite Lao dishes.
Vonne Keobouala was born in Laos, which is in Southeast Asia between Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. At age 7 and as a result of the Vietnam War, her family moved to California.
She grew up surrounded by a community who enjoyed their culture’s food. But as time went on, they adapted to the American way of life and eating. Still, Vonne said it has always been important for her to share the culture and cuisine of Southeast Asia. When her brother, Matt “Jit” Lothakoun, moved to North Carolina, she followed soon after and they opened Simply Thai in Elon, with a focus on Thai food and sushi. Ten years have passed, and they have since expanded to a location in Jamestown. But it was the food of Laos that Vonne said needed celebrating.
“Here, there are Asian restaurants. We see Chinese and Thai, but not the food of Laos, not the food of my mother. But I think people are ready to accept our cuisine. Food brings people together, and we want to introduce our culture through our food.”
What makes Lao food different is the vibrant colors and unique textures of the dishes. The freshest herbs and produce make for a meal that’s pleasing to the palate while working with your hands. And that’s mostly how the guests at Chef’s Table enjoyed their meal. Hands washed, enjoying a family-style meal of lettuce wraps and other hand-held items that were crispy, crunchy, spicy, sticky and tantalizing in so many ways.
Guests were greeted upon arrival with platters of shrimp crisps. They looked like colorful pork skins with a similar crispy texture, but they were made with shrimp. They were great for snacking and conversation.
Vegetable Spring Rolls & Sakoo Sai Moo: Tapioca dumplings filled with pork, peanuts, caramelized palm sugar, fried garlic
You can’t go wrong by starting out with the quintessential spring roll, and Lao’s is one of the best around. The Sakoo Sai Moo was a sticky little dumpling with a little chili kick, and we wrapped them in beautiful lettuce leaves for a fresh yet sticky, sweet, salty and spicy bite.
Nam Khao: Lettuce wraps, crispy rice, coconut flakes, peanuts, sour pork, with fresh cilantro, green onions
These wraps were similar to what you might find in a great Chinese restaurant with lots of cilantro and onions. The crispy rice in this dish helps it stand out.
Chicken Laab: Chopped roasted chicken seasoned with spicy lime sauce, fresh herbs
This popular Laotian larb was fantastic as well. “Laotians use sticky rice like bread,” Vonne told us. This dish was served with a bowl of sticky rice, which acted as your vessel from hand to mouth. You made a bowl in your hand with the rice and placed the chicken mixture inside. If you like playing with your food, this dish is for you.
Lao Sausage & Beef Seen Lod Jeow (dipping sauce), sticky rice
The sausage and beef may also play nicely as an appetizer. Like a Lao charcuterie board, the spicy sausage was so full of flavor, and the beef is considered to be like jerky. The dish was served with more sticky rice and a delicious dipping sauce.
Aom: Chicken Herbal stew with fresh dill, long green beans, Lao eggplant
The description says it all. The stew was hot, herbaceous, and filled with chunky chicken and veggies. It would be great for a cold day.
Nom Vaan Lorm: Mixed-flavored jellies, cantaloupe, corn, served in sweetened coconut milk
Now, this little dessert might read oddly. Flavored jellies? Corn? But it was fantastic to me. It tasted like a coconut infused cereal milk. You know how Sugar Smacks taste? That’s what it reminded me of, but with the freshest of real fruit cocktail mixed in.
To say that the Chef’s Table guests were stuffed and blown away is putting it mildly. Vonne said she loved seeing the faces of happy customers enjoying the cuisine of her family’s heritage.
“Seeing people come in, meeting them and knowing they are so happy to be here and enjoy the food and then they continue to support us…that’s the biggest reward.”
Kristi Maier is a food writer, blogger and cheerleader for all things local who even enjoys cooking in her kitchen, though her kidlets seldom appreciate her efforts.