It’s a small Asian convenience store plopped on a patch of cracked cement and brittle grass. Awning – faded. Pepsi sign – peeling. Inside, the proprietor’s daughter obsessively plays a noisy, hand-held video game. In the sweltering 90-degree August heat, the low-ceilinged market cum restaurant smothers with sticky air and spices.
The perfect time for take-out, you say? Naw, I love atmosphere – the good, the bad and the ugly – and this place has atmosphere in spades.
So, Adam and I stay and sweat through the spiciest curry we’ve eaten so far on this Thai-o-rama journey.
But more on the food in a bit.
Doubling as a specialty food market, Vientiane stocks the wares vital to Thai home cooking. Shelves overflow with varied sizes of Sriracha sauce. Packets of Gogi and Agar-Agar powder lay about in bins. Rows pack can upon can of whole palm seed, jackfruit, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts (both Dragonfly and Twin Elephant brands) and langans.
Side note: Nope, I don’t know what a langan is either – and a quick web search proved fruitless. Anyone know?
Coolers chill green and jasmine teas, sodas, and a pre-fab Thai Iced Tea called Honey Bee that turns out to be sickeningly saccharine — yet enticingly addictive.
Settling into one of only four tables, we have only moments to survey our surroundings and drum our fingers on the mint-green laminate top before the food arrives. It’s steaming and pre-packed in wafer-thin, to-go containers.
Our waitress thoughtfully sets the piping hot aluminum on little hand-cut cardboard trays to prevent finger burns. We slide them around the table and fill our Styrofoam plates with heaping piles. The little girl’s game honks and beeps.
Thick with coconut milk and flecked with red pepper, the red chicken curry starts my nose running like a good curry should. On this hot day, it also causes beads of moisture to form on my upper lip. Floating in the creamy sauce are crisp veggies – green beans, bamboo shoots, zucchini, and eggplant – as well as a ton of basil leaves. Overall curry effect: very spicy and very yummy.
Fresh and well-cooked, the Pad Thai pleases at first. Full of peanut flavor, with just-right noodles, plump shrimp and tender chicken, I think I’ve finally found a great Pad Thai. But, again, subsequent bites reveal a cloying sweetness that overpowers the positive. It’s nothing that a squeeze of lime and a tad more heat won’t cure. However, we are – again – limeless. Pad Thai score: slightly better than okay, bordering on the edge of good.
We also ordered a papaya salad, but at this point in the meal I’m beet-red and feeling a little faint, so we pack up (a quick endeavor, considering) and shuffle home.
Now, sitting here in the evening, I’m snacking on the salad — which is packing a pleasant punch, even if a mite stale and heavy on the fish sauce — and considering, with 10 restaurants down, where Vientiane fits into the Portland Thai food scene.
The food certainly doesn’t come close to Boda’s or even Pom’s. But, compared to the other neighborhood Thai restaurants, Adam and I both feel it fares quite well. Rather strongly, even.
The curry was quite nice and the atmosphere — authentic and weird — can’t be beat.
Blogger’s Note: This post is the tenth in a series of Thai restaurant reviews being conducted — and posted on the same day — by a group of Portland bloggers and writers. For other reviews, check out Portland Food Map.