Chances are that if we asked you to tell us your favourite Thai, Vietnamese or Singaporean dishes, you’d be able to name more than a few. What if we said Laos? Mind drawing a blank? You’re not the only one. It’s fair to say that Laotian cuisine has been a little unrepresented in the jostling London restaurant circuit up to now, but thankfully that’s starting to change.
The Lao Cafe started off as a pop-up offshoot of the wonderfully successful Rosa’s Thai Cafe chain, and has now found a permanent home in bustling Covent Garden after proving to be a roaring success. Nestled in Chandos Place, Lao Cafe is small and charming, covered in blue tiles and colourful art that could almost convince you that you were in a little Portuguese bistro. With long sharing tables taking up most of the upstairs space, we nestled into a little table by the window to watch passers-by and imagine what could possibly be ahead of us.
A huge part of the fun of going to eat in a place like Lao Cafe is trying to figure out the menu, giving up and having to give in to surprise. We dived straight in and ordered one item from each section of the menu, from salads to grills and soups. While we waited, we sampled a Laos speciality – crispy fried bugs… Still with us? These toasted little critters may not be everyone’s cup of tea but certainly get the conversation going. Order one between two or three and get stuck in – it’s all part of the fun.
The rest of our food arrived quickly and in mass, and we soon learned an important lesson – Laotian food is spicy. Not just your run of the mill spicy though, exploding infernos of lava and dynamite in your mouth spicy. If this sounds like your idea of hell, make sure you are extremely clear in your ordering or else learn the hard way (as we found out). For spice lovers, welcome to heaven and enjoy not feeling your mouth for the next several hours. Although it shares a border with Thailand, Laos cuisine boasts more flavour, earthiness and above all spice than Thai food, providing a South East Asian taste experience like no other.
The Tum Lao salad consisted of pickled crabs in a citrus and chili dressing for a sweet, sour, spicy and crunchy combination that was both refreshing and fire inducing at the same time. The chargrilled pork neck (that’s Nam Tok Kor Moo to those in the know) was a stand-out dish – beautifully barbecued and thinly sliced to show off the depth of flavour and freshness. Piled high on a plate with a chili dressing (what else), we would have eaten these tasty morsels all night long if only we could have. The grilled beef provided a welcome respite from the heat of our other dishes and the simply cooked steak was perfectly done and perfectly spiceless. Lastly, our chicken hot-pot arrived in an authentic ceramic pot with ladle and lid – the perfect serve yourself sharer. The hottest of all, our hot-pot included silky poached chicken, zingy spring onion and a hot sour broth that took our breath away.
With banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice and enough Lao beer, red wine and passion fruit juice to fill an ocean, we ate our way through this little country’s incredibly diverse and delicious menu. A trip to the Lao Cafe is stepping into Asia – cold beer in hand, food that’s too hot to handle (but too tasty to stop eating) and enough noise, buzz and chatter to keep you entertained well into the evening. Go with a large group to get a real feel for the sharing culture Laos does so well and come back as a couple to see who can handle the most heat. We guarantee you’ll have a good time.