File this one under "worth a detour," as they say in guidebook parlance: Vientian Cafe is a Laotian restaurant situated on a completely residential street in East Oakland — literally, for blocks, the only commercial business is this one lime-green house, where, if you peek through the window, you'll spot a few people eating.
What those people know, which you probably don't, is that the restaurant is one of best places around for down-home Lao food. And, without being hyperbolic, the interesting vegetable preparations; complex spicing; and delicate, multi-layered dishes (redolent of lemongrass, chilies, and kaffir lime) made my meals at Vientian Cafe some of the most enjoyable — and soulful — dining experiences I've had in months.
It's true that the surroundings are humble. The restaurant itself is just the house that chef-owner Chan La and her husband bought about a decade ago; they still live upstairs. And the part of Allendale Avenue where Vientian sits is one of those areas that real estate agents describe as "up and coming" (i.e., pleasant, if just dicey enough that most of the homes we passed had locked fences and several had barred windows).
So it makes sense that this is a neighborhood place, more than anything, with an appealingly diverse clientele: black, white, brown. And, like most Laotian-owned restaurants in the Bay Area, Vientian seeks mass appeal by offering a broad range of Southeast Asian cuisines. In fact, the regular menu is predominantly Thai, with just a smattering of Lao and Vietnamese dishes. There's Pad Thai, tom yum soup, and several different curries; there's Vietnamese-style bun and a couple of beef noodle soup options that looked a lot like pho.
Most of the, ahem, non-Asian diners ordered something along these lines and, for what it's worth, no one seemed unhappy with their food.
But here's the key to a stellar meal at Vientian: Ask for the separate "Lao Specialties" menu. Ordering almost exclusively off that list, I wasn't served a single bad dish over the course of two visits.
Start off with a order nam kao, or crispy rice ball salad, which is actually on the regular menu — and which I'll always think of as the quintessential Lao dish, so different was it from anything I'd ever eaten when I first tried it years ago. Nam kao is a "salad" in the sense that it's a bunch of mostly-vegetable matter served at room temperature, but is otherwise wholly unique: cooked rice that's mixed with coconut and deep-fried, then broken into crunchy little clumps and served with bits of rice noodle and fermented sausage and fresh herbs. Spritz the whole thing with lime juice and eat it inside a lettuce wrap. The rice ball salad at Vientian is the best I've ever had (yes, better than Champa Garden's) — each component just fresher, with brighter flavors.
Speaking of that sausage, no meal at Vientian is complete without an order of sai oo, another Lao specialty: Each fermented (i.e., slightly sour) sausage — a bargain at just $2.50 apiece — is scored along its entire length, like you might do with a hot dog, and then baked. Those slits are a stroke of genius, yielding a sausage that — besides being delicious, with a subtle, lingering heat — is super-crunchy on all of those exposed surfaces. If you like the Issan sausage rice bowl at Hawker Fare (and I do), you'll love this.
Then there's the mok pa, which, in spite of its modest $5 price tag, may be the best catfish dish I've ever eaten. Don't be put off by the menu description, which includes the phrase "catfish nuggets" — basically, chunks of fish are taken off the bone and covered in aromatics (lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, onion, garlic), then steamed inside a banana leaf until the whole thing coheres together almost like a terrine: tender, succulent, and incredibly fragrant.
There's a practicality to Lao cuisine, shaped as it has been by centuries of poverty, but dish after dish was like this — humble in their presentation, but stunning in their intricacy and depth of flavor. Kao soy ("big noodle soup") was red-hued and umami-rich, the funk of fermented soybeans balanced by the freshness and crunch of shredded cabbage. And both the oar larm (a beef stew) and mok nor mai (steamed bamboo shoots) highlighted a vegetable prep that was completely new to me: water spinach (ong choy, at Chinese restaurants) cooked down to a slippery mush, giving each dish a bit of intrigue — an elusive earthiness — that lingered in my memory.
When ordering Lao dishes, make sure you get an order of sticky rice, which Vientian serves in a cute little basket steamer. I've read that per-capita sticky rice consumption is higher in Laos than anywhere else in the world, with the average Laotian eating nearly a pound of the stuff every day — and, truly, it's a worthy accompaniment. The traditional way to eat the rice is with your hands, using clumps of the chewy grains to scoop up the meat or vegetables. (I've yet to test out the technique, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.)
End your meal on the perfect (not too) sweet note: a bowl of warm mango sticky rice, lush with coconut milk and infinitely comforting.
If somehow you're still not sold: Consider that almost every item on the Lao menu costs $5 or less, and portions are big enough that three or four dishes, shared family-style, is a feast for two people.
That, my friends, makes Vientian not only a restaurant worth crossing bridges and tunnels for, but also something that's perhaps just as rare: a place where regular folks can stop in for a delicious weeknight meal — several times a week, even — without straining their wallet.