Lao Food in East Oakland

Green Papaya Delis namesake
Green Papaya Deli's namesake. Photo by Rudy R.

In July, I was working on a feature article about Lao food in East Oakland for the food section of a major Bay Area daily newspaper. In very early August, a few weeks after I'd finished the first round of interviews, I found out that newspaper's food section was merging entirely with that of another large newspaper operated by the same company, gutting staff (and its already flimsy freelance budget) in a frantic cost-shearing maneuver. Since my piece addressed a unique ethnic community largely confined to a single neighborhood in one distinct part of Oakland--San Antonio--it wouldn't jive with the company's broad new regional focus. At least, that's what my freshly-canned editor told me when she delivered the bad news.

I was deeply bummed--not just because I'd already logged a bunch of hours researching the article, but because the food--as well as the people I'd met, their stories, and the traditions they associated with what they enjoyed eating--seemed so deserving of attention.

I first became really curious about Lao food nearly two years ago, after a tasty meal at Champa Garden, the somewhat venerable Lao restaurant on 8th Avenue east of Lake Merritt in San Antonio--one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the Bay Area, home to close-knit populations of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians in almost equal proportions. I tried to draw distinctions between its dominant flavors and those most prevalent in the more familiar cuisines of its Southeast Asian neighbors. Like Thai, Lao thrives on interplay between sour and spicy, crunchy and soft, and both cooked and raw ingredients. The effect however is different. Extreme tastes and textures--intense, bold, lush--somehow find lovely balance in the most homespun preparations, and the combinations feel wilder, more jarring. Truly bitter greens are tossed in barely sweet lightly-dressed salads with herbs and raw marinated fish. Crispy fried rice comes wrapped in sheets of iceberg lettuce with preserved pork bits, lime, and scallions peppered throughout.

With Champa Garden as my starting point, I began a gradual tour of Lao flavors in East Oakland. First, I visited Vientian Cafe, a rough-hewn eatery situated a few blocks outside the San Antonio neighborhood, on a barren block of Allendale. The food was uniformly spectacular and stunningly inexpensive. Baked sausage with lemongrass, onion, and chiles--a thin, churro-like cylinder, dark-brown, crusty, and cracked on a bed of raw shredded cabbage--and kao piak, a noodle soup with chicken, nutty fried garlic, and pork blood, particularly stood out.

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On several occasions, I lunched at Green Papaya Deli, a tiny storefront on International Boulevard at 2nd Ave. Cynthia Senephansiri is the owner; her mother Lily cooks. For 15 years, the family owned a video store renting and selling tapes and, later, dvds of Lao and Thai films. Its market was niche to begin with, and as people bought and rented movies less and less anyway, the store's business dwindled to a dangerously frail level. About a year-and-a-half ago, Cynthia had the idea to open a restaurant. In the dearth of Lao restaurants around town she saw an opportunity to bring authentic versions of the traditional Lao dishes her family loved to people who had never before encountered them. In the beginning she had no formal restaurant experience, but now Lily spends 7 days and nights a week behind the stove in the kitchen barely visible through the window behind the counter. From time to time, she pads into the tiny dining room to make sure customers are eating the food she sends out with satisfyingly palpable enthusiasm. Lily is small, and her voice is quiet, but her smile sparkles like few I have ever seen, dwarfing everything else in the room, engulfing diners in a luminous maternal aura as she murmurs fretfully about the cleanliness of their plates. I have already written about Green Papaya's otherworldy Lao-style chicken soup, but Lily's papaya salad--vivid, shockingly hot, and pungent with a tamarind-laced dressing made-from-scratch--deserves a very special mention.

The first time I visited, I ate the salad with seven chiles and gently steamed at my corner table. The second time I came through, I tried it with twelve and felt, as I desperately seized fistfuls of heat-dampening sticky rice, as if my chest might explode if I dared to down another slippery forkful. According to Lily's nephew Ken, the restaurant's waiter, his aunt will add up to twenty for the most masochistic (and showy) of chile-fiends. Of course, he had to immediately assure me that I, being white and American, could always expect to receive considerably fewer chiles than I'd request. He meant that kindly, I think, but I did feel a twinge of disappointment. I had been proud to hang, at least for half a plate, with twelve, but my "twelve," as it turned out, was actually more like "six," my "seven" just a few. Ken showed me a massive bag of the mean-looking chiles, and I felt better. They were gnarled blue spikes, each only a third the size of my pinkie--sort of like wicked appendages to a knight's armor. I was even happier to learn my personal expectations for success exceeded Ken's. He chided me for trying to eat an entire order by myself, explaining that papaya salad, especially such a molten rendering, is meant to be shared amongst three or four hungry people, as one sweet, searing passage in a harmonious array of tastes, not a meal in and of itself, or even a snack through which a solitary and stubborn ignoramus should struggle.

After my second meal at Green Papaya, I met the family. Lily came to Oakland in 1981. She told me the exact date of her arrival without a moment's pause to recollect. She likes Oakland, especially the weather. The restaurant is practically in her backyard; its kitchen, she says, is hers. Assertive and business-oriented, Cynthia drew firm distinctions between Lao and Thai, the cuisine to which it's frequently compared, suggesting that Thai food in the United States tends to be marketed to American tastes, whereas Lao restaurants, far fewer in number, are usually direct extensions of home-cooking traditions. According to Cynthia, restaurants identifying as Lao tend to rep their homeland's cuisine more faithfully precisely because the cuisine has no successful Americanized tradition. Thai restaurants are immensely popular, with instantly recognizable dishes -- like tom yum and pad thai. For this reason, many Lao elect to operate Thai restaurants -- to attract customers.

I also met with April Kim, the program director of the Oakland Asian Cultural Center, and Sokham Senthavilay, a Lao woman who has taught cooking classes at the OACC on a few occasions. Sokham showed up with an adorable child in her arms -- perhaps a niece or a grandaughter. As the little girl sat perched on the table, staring me down calmly, her frilly dress cascading over the edge like a curtain, Sokham told her story. She left Laos in 1978. After a few months in jail and a stint at a camp in Thailand, she headed to the United States in 1980, first to Seattle, then to Texas, and finally to Oakland, along with many of her 15 siblings. She used to cook at a Thai restaurant in Oakland but couldn't stand the hours. I told her about the papaya salad mishap, and she laughed, saying that she understood. Even when you're sweating and crying, she said, you always want to eat more than you should -- because the heat makes you feel so good.

Sokham believes home kitchens produce the best Lao food, and with obvious glee, described her weekend ritual in detail. Most Saturday mornings, she wakes up early and heads to the market. With her twelve brothers, sisters, and cousins helping, their own ever-expanding families milling around the house, she starts cooking at 10 a.m. and finishes by mid-afternoon: a full-blown banquet of larb, bamboo soup, papaya salad, grilled fish, and sticky rice accompanied by beer, Johnny Walker Black, and a kind of rice-derived moonshine called Lao Lao. Sokham lives around the corner from Green Papaya, but she's never been there. She rarely socializes or eats outside of her house. She agreed with Cynthia Senephansiri's claim about the scarcity of Lao restaurants. Though it's rarely advertised on menu, she added that some Thai restaurants staffed by Lao cooks can cook some dishes Lao-style if you order them that way -- like papaya salad, which she noted often tastes too sweet for her liking at Thai restaurants. She speculated Thai food might be more familiar to Americans because more Americans have been to Thailand and many more Thai immigrants have comfortably settled in this country.

Laos, Sokham explained, sits in the shadow of Thailand. With the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975, many Lao fled their country for fear of communist reprisals and, like Sokham, ended up in Thailand before finding their way here. Ken's grandfather was one of them too. In Laos, he had owned farms and houses, but after the war, the communist government redistributed all of his properties. Ken described his disappointment as vast and crushing. He went to Thailand and then to Cleveland, where he died after a year. From 1975 to 1996, the U.S. government resettled more than 250,000 Lao refugees in communities around the country, including an estimated 30,000 living in the Bay Area, many in East Oakland--where three modest restaurants stand as clear local evidence of Laos's gastronomic legacy.

A month or so ago, I covered the Center for Lao Studies' First Annual Banquet for the S.F. Weekly's online presence. In an email exchange following the event, the Center's executive director Dr. Vinya Sysamouth mentioned community members had petitioned Yelp to add a category for Lao food, and that Yelp had adamantly refused. Maybe, I wondered, because none of the three Lao-identified restaurants in the Bay Area limit themselves to serving Lao food alone. Vientian Cafe and Champa Garden offer some Vietnamese and Thai dishes. On Yelp, they're respectively identified as "Thai" and "Vietnamese," and "Thai" and, curiously, "Asian Fusion." Green Papaya Deli has a small Thai menu because, as Lily told me, she's concerned many Americans might not eat there unless they see at least a few dishes with which they're already familiar.

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You can find the restaurant listed under "Thai" and "Deli" on Yelp.

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