There's an organic quality about 23rd Street, the treeless, traffic-swept throughway that connects Richmond with San Pablo. It's as if the taco trucks, carnicerias, carwashes, and remittance centers bubbled up directly out of the surrounding flatland neighborhoods, some spontaneous reaction to the need for cheap, vivid food and services with a connection to home.
That home worth connecting to could be in Guatemala or Guadalajara. In the case of That Luang Kitchen, it's Laos. In 1992, Saigon-born Loc Nguyen and his wife, Leuksan Sipaseuth — whose family had immigrated from the Laotian capital, Vientiane — opened a market here, on a corner of 23rd Street almost exactly straddling the Richmond-San Pablo border. They named it after Vientiane's grand, gold-stupa'd Buddhist temple, Pha That Luang.
That Luang, the market, was also a bit of a deli. Sipaseuth, who received two years of culinary training through Job Corps, then worked five more cooking at the Reno Hilton, turned out house-made chile sauces and pastes for the market's cooler. That Luang became a take-out source for green papaya salad, containers bagged for parties or for sweating over privately at home.
It was good enough, apparently, to help the market survive for nearly twenty years, one of a small handful of Lao groceries that thrived in the area. And it was good enough for Nguyen and Sipaseuth to launch a little connecting restaurant, That Luang Kitchen.
Then business slowed down at the market. In February Nguyen and Sipaseuth turned it into a party venue, but the market survives via a couple of shelves loaded with cans of som tum powder and almond jelly; plastic containers of fish paste, chile sauce, and roasted tomato relish (jaew maak len) in the restaurant's drinks cooler; and in the bags of pork rinds and packs of chewing gum at a small table in front. And it survives in Sipaseuth's papaya salad.
Nguyen — who doubles as That Luang's waiter — is a slight man with a shadow mustache and keen look. He asks how many chiles we want pounded up in our papaya salad. Six is hot, three is medium. I punk out. "Maybe three?"
He brings a heap of tan shreds flecked with mint leaves and bits of semi-dried chile as fine as popcorn husks. The papaya sits on a jumble of bruised cherry tomato halves, next to a wedge of raw cabbage in fat ribbons. The sear is only moderate, just like Nguyen said, beneath a fierce lime tang and low, rumbling growl of fish paste. It's very good.
Better than good is Sipaseuth's mok pla, a sort of delicate catfish loaf steamed in a folded-over square of banana leaf. Pale, boneless hunks of fish hold together in a Kaffir-lime-and-lemongrass-perfumed matrix of coconut milk, green onion, and big, wilted plumes of baby dill.
The browned banana-leaf parcel shares the plate with a heap of boiled greens — soft-stemmed Chinese and Western broccoli — and a bowl of that tomato relish I mentioned, Sipaseuth's jaew maak len. The tomatoes are roasted till they wither and intensify, picking up a dark, smoky sweetness and slight tannic bitterness. They're mixed with chiles and fish paste, though it's the tomato that defines the flavor. You dab the greens into it, mix a shaggy half-spoonful into your sticky rice, grassy-tasting from the reed steaming basket. That Luang's mok pla is a dish capable of opening up simultaneously in a few different dimensions — I'd find room for it on any list of East Bay favorites.
Nam kow — Laotian fried rice — is suffused here with the sharp taste of fermented Lao sausage. Sipaseuth doesn't make her own — she buys the bright pink sausages, shaggy with crisp, pale strips of pork skin — from a company in San Francisco. It shows up coarsely ground in Sipaseuth's nam kow, mingling with clusters of broken-up rice crust, the one that sticks to the bottom of the pot. Actually, I wished the rice bits had been craggier, chewier though the flavor was good — especially after crushing fried Thai chiles and wok-toasted peanuts over the top, and wrapping up spoonfuls into mint- and cilantro-lined leaves of frilly lettuce.
That same spark failed to ignite chicken larb, a pile of chewy, coarsely chopped meat and gizzards with a savory gloss of fish paste and toasted rice powder but little else. And a simple chicken soup with house-made rice noodles, That Luang House Special Noodles, is a soup designed as neutral ground, meant for spicing up with table sauces, but its hunks of boiled chicken in thin-tasting broth were as stiff and leached of flavor as Sipaseuth's larb. Still, her white, thickish noodles had chew and a hint of elastic, a texture echoed in mahogany-colored cubes of congealed pork blood.
Whether to honor Nguyen's roots or to lure 23rd Street's non-Lao lunch crowd it's not clear, but Sipaseuth fleshes out That Luang's offerings with a few Viet dishes, banh mi and pho. Under a headline proclaiming "This Is It!" the Vietnamese combination sandwich (pork, headcheese, pâté) boasts that it's "the favorite of workmen and students alike." It wasn't a favorite of mine, though, thanks to a cottony roll, meats that tasted bland and processed, and vegetables showing lackluster pickle.
Who cares? Nobody but the indifferent — guys like the work-booted Dish Network service tech immersed in his phone while he eats — is likely to stop here for banh mi, anyway. It's the long table of Lao-American kids in their twenties, in flat-brimmed MLB caps and sagging pants, judging the nam kow by the ones their moms make and debating who serves the spiciest green papaya salad in the East Bay, who know what to order here.
It's clear the guys at this particular table have left the neighborhood. One tells a story about how he almost drove into a shoot-out, another says his mom won't consider moving out, even though her house is in what he calls "the ghetto." "It's hella stupid," he says, except maybe it's not — not while places like That Luang still exist on 23rd Street, serving up a taste of the familiar.