East Oakland's Lao cuisine is a popular topic at Bay Area Bites, as we've featured coverage from Andrew Simmons in a previous post that included reviews of local favorites Champa Garden, Vientian Cafe and Green Papaya Deli (now closed.) Souk Savanh's been highlighted on Check, Please!, and fellow BAB blogger Rachel Myrow wrote an excellent article on the Lao refugee community that settled in East Oakland over 20 years ago. This roundup focuses on other fine Lao restaurants located throughout Oakland, San Pablo, El Sobrante and Albany; let us know your favorites in the comments.
While El Sobrante might not be the first destination that comes to mind for Lao food, it's worth making the trip to visit Sue's Kitchen. Hidden away in a tiny strip mall on a hill, this restaurant has a short but dazzling menu of Lao and Thai dishes. One fantastic appetizer is their nam kao, a large platter of crispy rice salad that's stir-fried with som moo, or sour fermented pork sausage. Wrap the rice in lettuce with fresh herbs, but be careful to leave some room for your entree as these tasty bundles could be a whole meal all by themselves. Kao piak, a big bowl of chicken soup brimming with homemade rice/tapioca noodles and fried garlic is perfect if you're nursing a cold or in the mood for Southeast Asian comfort food. Unless you're starving, get the medium size; it's a generous portion large enough for two. Another standard Lao noodle soup is kao soy; wide, flat rice noodles swim in a chicken broth topped with spicy minced pork and meatballs. Be sure to see what's on their list of specials as well. The green seafood curry is wonderfully prepared -- and not too cloyingly sweet -- with fresh shrimp, salmon, eggplant, asparagus and a side of jasmine rice.
Spiciness is the prevalent taste at Rose Garden Restaurant, located at another nondescript strip mall in nearby San Pablo. Many of the Lao dishes -- listed under a special section of their menu -- are prepared at least medium spicy if you don't specify otherwise, so get ready to fan the sweat off your brow during dinner (and order a basket of sticky rice to help cool your palate.) A ground meat salad, like larb kai made with chicken, is a staple of Lao cuisine. It's got plenty of heat, so take some sips of ice water before moving onto neau nam tok, or the grilled steak salad served with a fiery chili dressing. The juicy slices of xay kok, or Lao pork sausage, is bursting with a variety of flavors from lemongrass to shallots. To cap off your fiery meal, try the catfish stew that's thick with Thai eggplant and chilies.
Just south of Rose Garden Restaurant on the bustling 23rd Street corridor of Mexican taquerias and businesses is another outstanding Lao eatery named after a prominent temple in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos. Formerly a grocery store, That Luang Kitchen's menu proudly announces that the demand for their popular papaya salad and other prepared food allowed them to gradually transform their space into a restaurant. You'll often find quail dishes on Lao menus, and they offer up a crispy fried quail appetizer with sweet and sour sauce. Their platter of nam is a mild, gelatinous pork sausage, often included in other dishes (like the aforementioned crispy rice salad from Sue's Kitchen). Be sure to try their red curry with your choice of chicken or fish and Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, basil and coconut milk. It's light and fragrant, reminiscent of fresh curries you'd find sold by street vendors in Thailand or Laos; soak it up with bites of sticky rice. Another scrumptious entree is the mok pla, catfish steamed in a banana leaf with dill, fish sauce, lime leaves, coconut cream and a side of chili sauce.
Located on a busy stretch of International Boulevard bordering Fruitvale, Sticky Rice Cafe serves up delicious Lao, Thai and Esarn cuisine in its cozy, bungalow-like restaurant. You'll find plenty of classic items on their menu: succulent pork Lao sausage with a sweet nam chim kai dipping sauce; larb ped, a chopped duck breast salad with kaffir leaves and other fresh herbs, chilies and ground rice; and hangover ho fun noodles sautéed with shrimp, basil, bok choy, an assortment of other vegetables and chili paste -- a humorous sidekick to the popular Southeast Asian entree drunken noodles. And of course they offer their namesake dish, a mini bamboo basket of sticky rice. As an added bonus, a complimentary bowl of vegetable soup and Thai iced tea sans condensed milk is included with your meal. They'll make any dish as spicy as you like upon request, and there's extra condiments on the table if you want to turn up the heat with pickled chilies, peppers or Sriracha sauce.
Take a stroll down Solano Avenue and you'll find a wealth of fine establishments to choose from, including the intimate quarters of Lao Thai Kitchen. While it no longer seems to serve soul food -- previous reviews have noted barbecued ribs, black-eyed peas and other Southern favorites on the menu -- it now focuses on a wide array of Thai and Lao dishes. Two fried appetizers that you dip into nam chim kai are sien savahn, a deep-fried beef jerky flecked with sesame seeds and muk tod, or fried calamari. Follow that up with a Lao-style shredded green papaya salad tossed with green beans, julienned carrots, slices of raw green Lao eggplant, garlic, tomatoes, lemon dressing and a pungent homemade fish sauce. Talay yao is a hearty sautéed entree featuring shrimp, scallops, jalapeños and eggplant in a rich gravy flavored with garam masala curry. And one outstanding item from the chef's specials are grilled eggplants stuffed with a mix of ground chicken, shrimp, mushrooms and peppers, then topped with a tangy tamarind sauce.