Dallas-Fort Worth has the biggest Laotian food scene in North America. More than a dozen eateries, ranging from traditional mom-and-pop markets to brewery-hopping food trucks, are introducing Texans to Lao cooking.
But if you've never had Laotian food before, what should you expect? It's a lot like the cuisines of the country's next-door neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam, and many people in the Isan region of Thailand speak Lao or have Laotian roots. Since some American Thai restaurants serve Lao dishes, you may have had Laotian food without knowing it.
Because of those influential neighbors, people in Laos eat dishes such as pho, boat noodles and barbecued pork skewers. Native Lao foods can be spicier and funkier than their Thai counterparts, with ingredients like fermented fish paste, crab paste, cubes of pig blood or fiery hot peppers. And, aside from the soups, many Lao foods are meant to be played with. Eat with your hands, scoop things up with sticky rice, dunk your meat in dipping sauces: Laotian food is for digging in.
You can start with the essentials listed below, in no particular order.
The combo plate at Zaap Lao Kitchen
6107 Greenville Ave.
Zaap's combo is meant to mimic a typical Laotian meal, owner Tony Singharaj says. It comes with your choice of meat — try Lao sausage, chicken wings or pork shoulder — and sides of papaya salad and sticky rice. Pull a big piece of sticky rice off the ball with your fingers, and use it to scoop up a bit of meat and a bit of papaya salad for one big sweet, savory, spicy bite.
A word of advice from Singharaj if you've never tried papaya salad before: Start with the Thai-style version.
“The Lao one has a crab paste, crab claw — it’s going to be a bit more bold, stronger taste,” he says. “Your Thai one’s going to be a bit more sweet, less strong. But the next time they come in, hey, try the Lao one. Some people like it, some people don’t.”
Sausages and pork ribs at Sabaidee
5200 Lemmon Ave.
Lao sausage — wide, tender links with a hint of spice that have a fairly high fat content without tasting greasy — is darn near miraculous. Truth be told, we've tried it at a number of restaurants around town, and all are good. But Sabaidee, the takeout-only mainstay on Lemmon, also has great pork riblets, chopped up and fried until crisp. That magical gold dust on top is garlic. Eat with your hands, tear the meat off the bones with your teeth and get garlic smeared on your lips. These dishes make for great appetizers, perfect for sharing with friends, unless you're like us and decide to make a whole meal out of sausage and fried ribs. No shame in that.
Noodle soups at Sapp Sapp
120 S. Main St., Irving
In researching last week's cover story on Laotian food in Dallas, we ate a lot of bowls of soup, and all of them were fantastic. Khao Noodle Shop, opening soon in East Dallas, will focus on housemade noodles. But for now the reigning champ is Sapp Sapp in downtown Irving, which has outstanding bowls of pho, including one topped with a beef rib; kapoon (spelled khao poon elsewhere), a noodle bowl with cabbage, sprouts, diced seafood, hot chile peppers and only a small splash of broth; "sookie-yaki," a glass noodle bowl that has nothing in common with Japanese sukiyaki; and kowpiak, pictured above and featuring beef, quail eggs, crunchy fried pork belly and dark cubes of pork blood. Be careful with the blood cubes: They retain heat well and can burn your mouth if you bite in too quickly.
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Laab (also spelled larb or laap) and nam khao at Nalinh Market
1716 State Hwy. 356, Irving
Nalinh Market, from the same family that runs Sapp Sapp, is the original Laotian restaurant in the Dallas area, and many consider it the reigning champion. This grocery store on the eastern edge of Irving has slowly ceded more and more space over to a small kitchen and dining area because customers got a taste and clamored for more. It's one of the best places in DFW to get Lao sausages and noodles. But it's also tops for laab, an intense minced meat and herbs salad with your choice of meat finely chopped and served with mint, cilantro and scallions in a savory-spicy-acidic dressing. If the flavor of laab is too much, opt for nam khao, a showstopper made by frying balls of coconut rice, chopping them up, and topping them with cured meat and herbs. Both dishes can be eaten as lettuce wraps.
Beef jerky from Saap Lao Kitchen
920 S. Harwood St., Dallas
Need a snack for the road? Grab a bag of beef jerky from Saap Lao Kitchen, a pop-up series that operates at festivals and the occasional brewery tour. Since jerky became Saap's main business, it's been making fresh batches every week and selling through an online shop. Saap offers classic (not too spicy), spicy and "hella hot" spicy flavors, and to us, the medium-spicy offering strikes a perfect balance between the sweet sugar glaze, hint of sesame and eyebrow-raising firepower of hot peppers. This is addicting stuff, and it's all natural, too.