In a strip mall at the corner of Illinois Avenue and Cockrell Hill Road, near Mountain View College, is a Thai and Laotian market with two names. The big yellow sign on the façade says Somphou Market, but the door advertises Ly Food Market. It’s maybe not the most auspicious first impression, and neither are the broken beer bottles that stud one or two parking spaces.
Ly Food Market, it turns out, is the correct name for this hole-in-the-wall gem. “Somphou” went away after the Southammavong family purchased the market. Or the name would have gone away, that is, except for the pesky signage. One family member told me to blame Dallas, explaining that picky city bureaucrats rejected the market’s first new banner.
Whatever the sign says, Ly Food Market is a valuable part of far west Oak Cliff, an establishment playing a triple role as jewelry counter, well-stocked southeast Asian grocery and casual spot to grab food from Laos and Thailand.
Eat-in orders are taken at the store’s front counter, and Ly Food Market only accepts cash and debit cards. A handful of tables are set up in the back, next to the shelf of Thai pop CDs, and shopping through the market makes for a good distraction as a meal is prepared.
For Oak Cliff and southern Dallas residents, shopping at Ly is much more convenient than driving to Asian markets in Richardson or Carrollton. And, although the store is compact, it has a diverse cross-section of Vietnamese, Thai and Lao pantry goods, with a handful of necessities from China and Japan.
Grab premium oyster sauce, sweet chili paste or a dazzling number of fish sauces, either the liquid variety now common in the United States or the less common jars of fish paste. Shrimp paste is here, too, used to add a salty, savory underline to some varieties of Thai curry. Want to make satay on the grill? Ly Food Market sells both bamboo skewers and satay seasoning packets, with recipes printed on the backs. Home cooks can also stock up on the noodles and seasonings used in pho, including fresh Thai basil, a slightly different variety of the herb from what’s commonly found in Texas.
Over in the refrigerated aisle, Ly carries ready-made sauces and stews, and, for those who like snacking on bugs, vacuum-sealed bags of frozen beetles. There are also imported drinks to pair with a sit-down meal, like cans of “Basil Seed Drink,” texturally an acquired taste, since the liquid really does contain actual basil seeds. My friends and I are partial to the Japanese soda Ramuné, which comes in glass bottles sealed by marbles. The minor act of violence required to dislodge the marble and drink the soda adds to its charm.
The in-house kitchen, often run by Ly Southammavong herself, has a pretty short menu of about a dozen items, including two appetizers and “Thai-style menudo,” all at bargain prices. A hungry soccer team could order the entire menu and spend less than $100. There are only three or four tables, but the market is not too busy, and each table has a generous tray of garnishes and sauces to help spice up the meal. Lunch came with a tray of Sriracha sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce, jalapeño slices, chili, shrimp paste, soy sauce and Instant Beef Flavor Paste.
Though the kitchen can make familiar classics like pad Thai, the Southammavong family has roots in Laos, which explains the presence of some less-common Laotian staples. Beef larb is a sort of national dish: finely-shredded beef with spices and an awful lot of cilantro. Larb is served with a wedge of lettuce, and building a lettuce wrap brings out striking hot-cool contrasts in both temperature and flavor.
Another Lao specialty is lad na, a meat-and-veggie noodle stir-fry served in a brown “gravy.” The sauce is thick and gluey in texture, but it tastes mighty fine, and if lad na itself doesn’t have much spice, that can be easily addressed with the platter of fixings. The gravy’s gooey texture was lost when I reheated leftovers, but the dish tasted maybe even better.
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A good Lao appetizer is fried pork ribs, chopped into thumb-sized pieces. It’s worth picking around the bone segments for deep red-brown pork bites that are crispy, juicy and generously coated with diced garlic.
The more popular Thai dishes are good, too. A plate of pad see ew, with ample broccoli, snow peas and carrots is successful, but Ly Foods’ pad kee mao would steal the show on just about any table in town, with jalapeños and Thai basil providing its invigorating spice. The bold colors make it even more attractive. Although some of my friends thought the small, amply-filled appetizer egg rolls might have come from a frozen package, we agreed that if it were true, we’d happily buy the package to make at home.
The Ly staff says they’ve tamed down Thai dishes for an American audience, but try believing that after ordering a five on the traditional one-to-five spiciness scale. For larb, three is about the right level for comfortable heat, while noodle dishes vary based on their ingredients.
Ly Food Market might not be a Thai culinary mecca for the Dallas region. I hope it won’t be, anyway, because it’s very small, and simply can’t accommodate a big crowd. But for Oak Cliff residents, it’s a great place to shop for noodles, beetles and everything in between. The kitchen is a happy bonus, with its satisfying stir-fries, Lao specialties and generous, affordable portions. That confusing signage is keeping Ly Food Market a hidden gem.
Ly Food Market, 4440 W. Illinois Ave., 214-330-9616. Open 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday