Monday, January 05, 2015

Lao Hot

On our one visit to Bangkok Golden months ago, we learned just how spicy Lao food can be when, after ordering everything medium-level "Thai hot" and receiving our first round of dishes, we were sheepishly forced to request that the heat be toned down on the rest of our meal.  (Our beers also proved insufficient to quell the fire, so Joanne's Thai iced tea became communal until we could all get our own!)  But the food was delicious, so I was very excited to try Thip Khao (especially as the excellent reviews started rolling in).  After Josh suggested Bob's Shanghai 66 or "whatever the best Chinese or Thai place in the burbs is," I was happy that he jumped on my counter-suggestion of staying in the district (if slightly out of our normal radius) for Laotian food.  Josh apparently had no problem getting an 8:00 p.m. reservation for last Friday with a few days' notice.  So far, so good.

When I arrived, the place was absolutely mobbed.  (Charming space; the decor clearly flags that Chef Seng has moved from a suburb hole-in-the-wall to an urban hot spot.)  It was 5+ minutes before I was even able to get up to the hostess, who then had no reservation for a "Josh," which she heard as "George."  Turns out she'd heard the same when the reservation was made; "George's" reservation matched Josh's phone number.  I overheard her apologetically tell multiple diners who had been waiting for thirty minutes to an hour that it would be another thirty to forty-five minutes, because tables weren't moving as quickly as they'd anticipated (for reasons that I would later understand), I'd worried that our reservation wasn't going to mean much.  Luckily, we were seated by about 8:15, almost immediately after Adam arrived.  That was the only smooth service interaction of the night.

The food, like at Bangkok Golden, was excellent, but the service was comically bad.  We were seated for twenty-five minutes before we finally just flagged down a passing waiter to request water and order drinks and appetizers.  He didn't write anything down, and made a mistake in reciting back our order while still standing there, so we were skeptical that we'd get everything.  Another ten minutes or so passed (it was nearing 9:00 p.m. by this time).  Jessica, frustrated with our empty water glasses, simply got up from our table, walked to the bar area, took one of the assembled water pitchers, filled our glasses, and returned the pitcher.  No one on staff seemed to notice.

Like at Little Serow, the meal began with pork rinds (cucumber slices for Adam and me), sticky rice, and a spicy sauce -- sort of like a spicy Asian BBQ sauce (not like LS's funky fish spreads).  It didn't hurt that I was pretty famished at this point, but I thought it was delicious.  I particularly liked the purple-tinted, black-rice-flecked sticky rice with it.  Unlike at Little Serow, no one seemed to notice when we'd run out of cucumber slices or sticky rice.

The vegetarian naem khao (crispy rice, coconut, lime, green onion, peanut, cilantro, lettuce wraps) was outstanding -- probably my favorite dish of the night.  Better than I remembered the crispy rice salad's being at BG.  Different sorts of crunch from the rice, peanuts, and lettuce, bright with acid and herbs.  Just fantastic.  The shrimp yor khao (summer roll with peanut sauce) were good, standard-seeming summer rolls, but the least interesting dish of the meal.  (The peanut sauce isn't the thick peanutty puree that I'd have expected, but rather a sweet clear sauce filled with peanut chunks.  A preferable pairing for the light rolls.)  Our tam muk hoong (green papaya, cherry tomato, lime, chilies, shrimp paste) was MIA.

The wait between rounds was so long that the melting ice in my (delicious) Thai iced tea and Adam's pandan soy milk (a bright mint green color!) -- both ordered as a preemptive hedge to combat the spiciness -- created a visible watery layer on the surface of our drinks.  The waiter came by at some point (after 9:30) to ask if we needed anything in a manner that suggested that he thought we'd already received everything that we'd ordered.  We said we'd like the rest of our food, including the papaya salad, and Josh ordered a second beer.  The waiter seemed surprised, was apologetic (as he was multiple times throughout the meal), and returned quickly to say that the kitchen was "just working on our order."  (Code for "I just put it in with a rush because a ticket got lost"?)  When it finally arrived, the salad was very good -- spicy without being overwhelming -- although I could have done without picking the squeezed lime wedges out of the salad.  (Dishes had a fair bit of heat, but nothing like what we'd experienced at BG (or LS, which I think has gotten less spicy than it was originally); our back-and-forth with the waiter on spice levels (and how it compared to BG) resulted in an appropriate translation of "medium, but, like, white-people medium.")  The waiter again apologized and said that it had been taken off the bill.  (Josh's second beer didn't show up until after the rest of our food, but it also didn't appear on the bill.)

Recalling a DR member's recommendation, I ordered the moak pah (steamed flounder wrapped in banana leaves, curry paste, dill); heavy on the dill, it was deliciously different from dishes Lao (or Thai) fish dishes that I've previously had.  Although we'd ordered the koi pla dib (Lao ceviche, rockfish, toasted rice powder, chili powder, scallion, cilantro, mint), a shrimp ceviche arrived.  (Given the service snafus, we didn't bother to ask what happened with our rockfish and just dug in.)  No matter, as it was excellent -- the spiciest dish of the meal, but so fresh with apple matchsticks and lots of acid that I (irrationally) kept picking off the platter long after I was full, expecting it to be less spicy than it was.  The tofu laab (minced salad, toasted rice, garlic, scallion, cilantro, mint) was another favorite.  Josh and Jessica liked the seafood orm (curry stew, Thai eggplant, dill) more than I did; I couldn't detect any eggplant, and while good, it wasn't as outstanding for me as other dishes.  (In another funny service moment, the bowls that we had requested to facilitate eating the soup finally arrived about two minutes after we all declared ourselves too stuffed to eat any more.)  We could have probably done with one fewer entree quantity-wise, but our ordering left just enough for Josh to take home a leftovers lunch.  (Josh had to pick up a previously request plastic bag to hold his containers at the bar on our way out the door.)

Desserts looked interesting enough that I would definitely try them on another visit, but given how long the meal lasted (and how full we were -- the (dis?)advantage of waiting so long between courses was that our stomachs had time to let us know that we weren't hungry long before I might otherwise have stopped eating!), we skipped them this time.  It was 10:45 by the time we'd paid the (refreshingly small -- under $30/person pre-tip for a lot of food) bill.  The silver lining to the service issues is that they were the sort of bad (and the staff seemed so overwhelmed) that I'm willing to chalk it up to opening kinks.  The food was so good that we'll definitely be back . . . but probably not until they've had some more time to find their groove.


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