Until recently, a restaurant billing itself as straight-up Laotian was a rarity in Oakland.
Vientian Cafe bills itself as Lao-Thai-Vietnamese. Champa Garden calls itself a Lao, Thai, and Lue restaurant. Camber, the restaurant that preceded Lao Taé in Montclair Village, served some Indian, Thai, Lao, and Burmese dishes, plus some American bar food for good measure.
But Andy Wong and Phil Norawong, owners of Lao Taé, along with chef Terry Vongphrachanh, wanted to be one of the few restaurants billing themselves as solely Lao — though the menu isn't entirely Lao. "I just want to make it [so] you know we're a Lao restaurant instead of a Thai restaurant," the two longtime friends said.
The boundaries between Lao and Thai cuisine, Wong and Norawong acknowledged, can be blurry at times. In fact, many people have probably eaten at a Laotian-owned restaurant without knowing it. Wong and Norawong estimate that 60 percent of local Thai restaurants are actually Lao-owned. As Luke Tsai wrote in a 2017 Express article, "The East Bay's Lao Restaurant Community Embraces Its 'Lao-ness,'" part of that was due to economic risk — many customers didn't know where Laos was, much less what its cuisine was like. Thai food was a known quantity. Norawong himself, who is of Laotian descent, has worked at several Thai restaurants.
But, as Tsai wrote, Laotian food has gained a wider following in recent years. So when Wong and Norawong — former part-owners of Camber who left the restaurant in 2016 — took over Camber's Montclair location in January, they added more Lao dishes and called it Lao Taé, meaning "real Lao."
Asked what sets Lao Taé apart from other Laotian restaurants, Norawong said one of the biggest factors is the environment. The front of the restaurant is essentially a sports bar, which can draw a small crowd of Warriors fans during games. It's also one of the few Lao restaurants with a full bar, complete with cocktails with names like Lost in Laos that are designed to complement the menu. Food-wise, though, Norawong won't disparage the competition. "The workers that work at the other restaurants, that's my grandma, that's auntie, so we're all in the same community."
I started with the nam khao, a "salad" of deep-fried rice with fermented pork, mint, cilantro, green onions, and coconut that I can never seem to resist ordering at Lao restaurants. This one stood up to some of the better versions I've tried in Oakland. The crunchy fried rice shattered with every bite. The fermented pork, made by Norawong's mother, added richness and tang, while the coconut added a touch of sweetness. Wrap a scoop of the salad in a lettuce leaf, along with some extra mint and cilantro for freshness and balance.
Lao sausage is another one of my favorite Lao appetizers, and the version here was solid. The pork sausage was made in-house with a blend of lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, and cilantro to add delicate, herbal flavor. While I missed the heat I've found in other restaurants' versions, the blend of fat to meat was on point, adding juiciness without excess grease. But if you're expecting something similar to the crispy sausage at Vientian Cafe, you won't find that here.
Though the menu described the dish simply as chicken laab, I was delighted to find chicken gizzards in the mix, which added a lot more texture and flavor than I've found in plain chicken meat versions. I haven't seen Thai eggplants served with laab before, but they added welcome crunch and freshness. The only thing that was missing was the spice I've come to expect from laab.
One appetizer I'd never seen at a Lao restaurant was corn fritters with plum sauce. It's a recipe the owners say they got from their friend, Laotian-American chef James Syhabout. I especially liked the use of coconut milk and red curry, which added creaminess and a hint of spice.
Like many Laotian restaurants in Oakland, Lao Taé offers both a Thai and Lao version of papaya salad. I went for the Lao version, which came with a small amount of salty, slightly pungent fermented in-shell crab on top and crispy pork rinds on the side. But with the exception of the tiny pieces of crab, the dish lacked the strong, pungent, fishy flavor and dark color I usually expect from Lao papaya salad — as well as the heat.
The owners suggest two accompaniments for the papaya salad — the crispy pork belly appetizer and the seen lod or Laotian beef jerky. The pork belly was delightfully crisp, though a little dry — nothing a dip of the accompanying spicy garlic sauce couldn't fix. The beef jerky was pleasantly scented with lemongrass, while fish sauce and oyster sauce added sweet, umami flavors.
Lao Taé finally delivered some heat with the khasoy, a noodle soup in a spicy red broth. The soup was also packed with beef balls, fish balls, ground chicken, and shrimp. Unfortunately, the wide rice noodles were overcooked and stuck together, which detracted from an otherwise excellent soup.
One of Lao Taé's most popular dishes actually leans more Thai: the crab fried rice. Unlike versions I've tried elsewhere, where I'm hopelessly picking for tiny morsels of crab, this version was full of crab — I even found an entire segment of leg meat intact. There was plenty of egg for richness. Plus, the rice was perfectly fried, without any sticky, soggy clumps.
I had to try the pad mee Lao, a dish I haven't seen anywhere else in Oakland, though Lao Taé's owners claim it's a ubiquitous dish in Laos. If you go to any Lao restaurant, that dish is available, they said, and it's like the pad Thai of Laos. It was a simple yet satisfying dish of thin rice noodles, stir-fried with fresh tamarind, sugar, and fish sauce for a hint of caramelized sweetness, plus green onions, egg, and bean sprouts for mixing in.
Lao Taé delivered on its promise of "modern Lao" with a dessert of mango and sticky rice. The dessert was beautifully plated, with slices of mango arranged on top like a rosette and a sprig of mint and a flower for garnish. I liked the unusual choice of using purple sticky rice rather than white, and the rice was served nice and hot.
I'm not ready to make Lao Taé my go-to Lao dining destination, especially because nearly every dish lacked the kick of spice I prefer. But for certain occasions — whether you find yourself near Montclair, want to watch the Warriors while eating nam khao and sipping cocktails, or are itching to try corn fritters and pad mee Lao — Lao Taé nicely fits the bill.