Vientiane - Garden Grove
If I may be given license to oversimplify, I'd say that the differences between Thai and Lao cuisine can be best described by the following trite movie analogy:
Thai food is like Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure; Lao food is like Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas.
The former -- a broad, brightly-colored, lighthearted romp -- put the director's quirky vision on the map, but it was still fully digestible to the general audience. By the time he created Jack Skellington, Burton's films were brooding, pitch-dark, and to some -- a little weird.
Lao food is the same way. It's complicated, and takes a second, even a third look to appreciate the genius.
The folks at Vientiane Restaurant in Garden Grove seem to know this. For those not quite ready for Lao food's eccentricities, the menu offers all the Thai staples (pad thai, et al). But those primed for funkier fare can dive headlong into Laos' home-grown cuisine -- one that, like other South East Asian countries not named "Thailand" or "Vietnam", is severely underrepresented in Orange County.
The low demand for Lao food in O.C. seems to reflect itself in the few seats the restaurant has. To say that it's tiny is not sufficient. The dining room is literally no bigger than a child's bedroom, and can hold no more than four parties at a time. In fact, when I was there, nine customers occupied all available tables. If you were the tenth, your choice was to do take-out or wait outside.
In the food, you'll find depths of flavor with unmitigated intensity. And like my favorite goth-leaning film auteur, it's got a little bit of good, old-fashioned oddness. Some of this even bleeds over to the typical Thai restaurant favorite of chicken yellow curry ($6.99). In its murky, coconut-milk gravy, lurks layers of complex, coarsely-flavored spices and an indescribable jungle aura.
You eat it with some sticky, glutinous rice ($3.00), which is served in a stout basket of woven reeds. The starch has the adhesive power of a thousand glue sticks. But unlike regular rice, it's not pasty -- an essential property because you are supposed to ball it up with your fingers. As you do, it doesn't gunk up your digits, even as you dunk it into food. It will sponge-up sauce and grab onto other bits of the meal like a charged electromagnet.
Other dishes don't need rice, just your attention. Take for example, the green papaya salad ($4.99). At first whiff you'll smell something off-putting; the discernible stench of rot. But it's not the fish sauce (child's play for those familiar to nuoc mam), it's the shrimp paste -- a substance that apes the smell of sweaty feet and distills all the flavor potential of fermented crustaceans. It darkens the tart papaya shreds to a dirty shade of brown, and amplifies the eating experience like a Danny Elfman score to a Burton flick.
For nam ($6.50), think of the crispy, burnt rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot. Now think of it as the base for a salad that also has chopped peanuts, unidentifiable morsels of pinkish meat, jellied pork skin, cilantro, and green onion. Imagine then the whole thing dressed in lime juice, chilies. Finally, roll it up inside a lettuce leaf with more herbs like basil and mint. Tell me if your mouth doesn't water.
Same goes for the chicken larb ($4.99), which plays a lot like the Thai version, except that it has smokier notes and slices of something rubbery and gristly, which I can only guess is boiled beef tongue.
The prize for tastiest (and also scariest) item goes to the mok pa ($3.50), which features a curried fish that might have been trout or catfish, hacked to pieces, shoved and steamed inside a banana leaf. The skin has the gelatinous quiver of pudding and the meat feels alien, for no other reason than that it's still attached to bone and cartilage.
If a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish is a chlorinated, hotel swimming pool, this was like wading into a swamp; terrifying and thrilling at the same time -- just like the latter films of Tim Burton.
In case you're wondering, I haven't seen Sweeney Todd, but I haven't tried Burmese food either. I'll save that analogy until then.
Vientiane Thai Laos
10262 Westminster Ave
Garden Grove, CA 92843