While you won't likely see Oakland's excellent Laotian restaurants mentioned in the national publications that have highlighted the city's dining renaissance, I'd argue that no food-focused visit to The Town would be complete without at least one Lao meal. Souk Savanh (1927 International Blvd.), an under-the-radar spot in the San Antonio district that was supposed to be the subject of this week's dining review, was as good a place as any to get acquainted with the often-spicy, umami-rich cuisine.
Unfortunately, diners will have to wait a while to visit: Late last week, a county health inspector discovered a leaky grease trap, prompting Souk Savanh to shut down its operations. Co-owner Nai Saelee said that she and business partner Tea Chaiyasith will take the opportunity to renovate and expand the restaurant's kitchen, which means Souk Savanh will likely be closed for at least the next two months.
It's a difficult turn of events for any business owner — and lousy timing for a restaurant critic wanting to turn readers on to some truly delicious food. And it will mark the latest in a series of major changes for this particular Laotian restaurant. Its previous incarnation, Black & Silver Laos Food and Burger, was one of those quintessential Oakland mish-mashes: a Raiders-themed sports bar at which diners could eat a cheeseburger and a Lao-style papaya salad as part of the same meal. A little more than four years ago, co-owners Saelee and Chaiyasith cleared out all the football paraphernalia, retooled the menu, and changed the restaurant's name to Souk Savanh — "paradise in heaven" in Lao.
The new moniker was reflected in a serene design aesthetic: a multitude of mismatched Buddha statuettes and a wall decal that depicted a swordsman swinging his blade amid falling cherry blossoms. By no means was this a fancy restaurant, but the place felt brighter and more contemporary than what you might expect to find in this rough-and-tumble stretch of International Boulevard.
I never ate at the old Black & Silver, but according to Saelee, the main change, food-wise, was that the burgers were replaced by a more expansive selection of Thai and Lao dishes. As is the case at many Laotian eateries in this country, Souk Savanh's menu looked mostly Thai at first glance. But the real draw was the Lao dishes, and while there were a handful of gems scattered throughout the menu, some of the restaurant's best offerings were on its "Lao Special" insert.
For example, there was the nam kao, or crispy rice ball salad. It's probably the Lao dish with which Bay Area diners are most familiar — steamed rice and coconut flakes rolled into balls and deep-fried until they're toasty and wonderful, then tossed with tender steamed sausage and strips of pork skin. The dish was only nominally a "salad," in that you could wrap everything up in a lettuce leaf with fresh mint, a squeeze of lime juice, and, if you were up for some heat, a bit of dried red chili. A handful of restaurants make a viable case for tastiest version in Oakland, but, hands down, Souk Savanh's rice balls had the most outrageous crunch.
Saelee said that, among other changes, the newly renovated Souk Savanh will offer an expanded selection of Southeast Asian soupy noodle dishes. When the restaurant reopens, you'll want to familiarize yourself with its version of kao soy, which combined thick rice noodles with a wholesome chicken broth and a ground pork topping that was redolent with fermented bean paste, which has a funky, deeply savory taste that had me salivating from the first bite. The kao poon ka-tee, on the other hand, was a coconut curry-based noodle soup that was slightly pungent and had a sour bite from kaffir lime leaves. The flavors were soaked up beautifully by juicy bamboo shoots, and, in the version I ordered, tender pieces of basa fish.
Meanwhile, it seems as if every Southeast Asian restaurant has some version of a spicy, sauce-drenched, deep-fried chicken wing dish, but Souk Savanh's was my new favorite: shatteringly crunchy, and tossed with fried basil leaves and an addictive sauce that was garlicky, lemony, and fiery enough to leave my mouth tingling.
Once the restaurant reopens, I suggest you wash down those wings, and any other spicy dishes you order, with a frosty mug of Beer Lao, king of the crisp Southeast Asian lagers. You'll also want to make sure you have a basket or two of sticky rice on hand. Lao people eat almost everything this way, holding a clump of rice in their hand to keep it soft, and breaking off pieces to scoop up vegetables and meat. Somehow, any kind of saucy dish tastes immeasurably better when eaten this way: the mok pa, or basa fish that was steamed inside a banana leaf with dill and kaffir lime; or the garlic shrimp, fried in such a way that even after we had finished the meat of the shrimp, we still had a plate full of crispy garlic bits and crunchy shrimp shells — just plain delicious when scooped up with the sticky rice.
And while you wouldn't think to eat a salad with rice, I found that using sticky rice to scoop up bites of Lao-style papaya salad — dressed with a triple whammy of fish sauce, fermented shrimp paste, and crab paste — helped temper the notoriously funky flavors that set it apart from its already quite pungent Thai counterparts. You'd think the dish would blow out your palate, but what I loved was the delicate balance between brightness and heat, and between the crunch of the papaya and the slipperiness of the spaghetti-shaped rice noodles.
Guidebook writers, this is my pitch: People ought to know it's worth a trip to East Oakland for the Lao food alone. For now, however, fans of the cuisine will have to satisfy their cravings at Vientian Cafe (3801 Allendale Ave.), Champa Garden (2102 8th Ave.), or one of the city's other Laotian restaurants. Here's hoping that Souk Savanh can rejoin them soon.