There are reasons there are so few Laotian restaurants in this area. Some of it is immigration patterns and demographics, and some of it is because Thai food has stolen its thunder a bit. The country just west of Laos has made a concerted effort to promote its cuisine to the world and has been largely successful in popularizing pad Thai, tom kha gai, massaman curry and such across a few continents. But it's a mistake to assume Laotian food is just the same.
Sohkdii Restaurant opened in the middle of May, a collaboration of owner Toy Dongsavanh, managers Anny Phouthavong and Turtle Vorasane, and chef Kay Vorasane. It's a pretty restaurant with shiny wood floors, a central sushi bar and sparkly oversized paintings of women wearing xout lao (traditional Laotian garb). Peek at the menu and you'll see handrolls and bento boxes, tempura and teriyaki. And another section with pad Thai and Vietnamese pho. Ignore all this stuff.
It's all fine, but this is an opportunity to try something new (seriously, I can't think of another Laotian restaurant around here right now). With Thailand to its west, Vietnam to its east and Cambodia to its south, Laos shares ingredients and some preparations with all of these. But it's not Thai-food-east.
In general, Laotian cuisine is spicier, with roasted fresh chile paste and fermented shrimp paste; flavored with galangal, lemongrass and Laotian fish sauce; with sweet and spicy sausages, lots of raw produce and meats (long beans and cuke and green papaya, as well as tangy pickled raw meats), and sticky rice eaten at every meal. In Laos, diners grab a ball of sticky rice, make a little indent and scoop with it from communal platters. At Sohkdii it's more refined with everybody getting their own bamboo basket of sticky rice fitted with a plastic baggie so it doesn't dry out at the edges.
So what to order? You've got to start with laab ($12), pretty much the national dish. Punchier than Thai larb, it packs a lot of heat from crushed chilies, with a flurry of mint and other herbs and a choice of meat (chicken, pork or duck) that is both tart with lime and intensely savory from the addition of chopped liver and skin. A bite of that, a round of crunchy cuke or snappy raw long bean, then a ball of sticky rice and you're off to the races. Thum mak hoong ($8) is Laotian green papaya salad, also more intense than its Thai counterpart with fish sauce and lime, served at Sohkdii with a few wedges of green cabbage (these somehow have a cooling effect).
Soups are some of the stars at Sohkdii, but they aren't for the faint of heart. Ease in with a bowl of khao piek sen ($10), essentially chicken noodle soup that you gussy with hot chili oil and lime. But then head into murkier waters with khao boon ($12), which is a red coconut curry soup with vermicelli and an array of meats (pork blood and stomach, fish, chicken feet). The flavors of mee gati ($10) are totally accessible: an orange coconut curry soup with peanuts, fluffs of egg, rice noodles and hunks of stewed pork over which you toss shredded cabbage, carrot and long beans. But the pork is mostly little riblets, so you're either wrangling the bones out in your mouth or doing some fancy soup spoon maneuvering. It's hearty but also sophisticated (despite my splotchy dress).
Phouthavong is the dining room ambassador and will guide you ably. She may steer you toward the fried bananas if she thinks you need a shot of the familiar, but be fearless and try the nam vahn ca la song ($5) for dessert, like tiny pale green German spaetzle made out of pandan-flavored rice flour bobbing in a pool of coconut milk with a few ice cubes to cool things thing down. Refreshing, but as I've said, unlike the post-prandial delights from other more familiar Southeast Asian cuisines. And that's what makes Sohkdii a delightful new gem on the local dining scene.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.