PINELLAS PARK — Despite its busy, often congested thoroughfares, seemingly endless traffic along 49th Street N and the anxiety that comes from too many forced left turns, I have a real soft spot in my heart for Pinellas Park.
At almost every major intersection, I’m greeted with a multicultural smorgasbord: Filipino or Honduran, Thai or Vietnamese, Korean or Mexican. Lately, it’s been my go-to spot whenever I’m craving the bright and fiery flavors of Laotian cuisine, thanks to Sap Sap Lao Cafe, a new restaurant that opened in February on a busy stretch of Park Boulevard N.
The spot is a small family-run business led by husband-and-wife duo Jonathan and Susanna Phaengvisay. Jonathan’s mother, Chanh, runs the show in the kitchen as the restaurant’s main chef while other family members — uncles, aunts, siblings — help out with back- and front-of-house operations.
Unlike some of the other places in the area I’ve stumbled on during one of my culinary sojourns, it doesn’t feel entirely accurate to call this place a hidden gem, or even off the beaten path. Every time I’ve stepped in to grab lunch or dinner, the restaurant has always been packed — a path plenty beaten, it seems, and for good reason.
Spices, fresh herbs and plenty of funk — when I think of the flavors emblematic of Lao food, this trio always comes to mind. The cuisine shares similarities with the fiery and fermented qualities of some Isan-style Thai specialties found in the northeastern region of Thailand, which shares a border with Laos.
There are plenty of dishes on this menu — from the drunken noodles to the tom yum soup — that will ring familiar to fans of Thai cuisine. But some of the uniquely Lao dishes are bolder in flavor and more pronounced when it comes to the powerhouse combo of chiles, a bevy of fresh herbs and the delightful funk of fermented seafood and pork.
I like to start my meals with an order of sai gok ($6.95), an herbaceous and fatty grilled sausage link flavored with lemongrass that carries a soft heat and arrives blistered, cut on the bias into thick slices. After that, I’d suggest moving on to one of the laap options —sometimes spelled laab or larb — considered by many the country’s national dish.
Served here with either beef, shrimp, fish or chicken ($10.95), the meat gets dusted with toasted rice powder and arrives sauteed in a spicy mix of chili flakes and tossed with cilantro and fresh lime juice. Alliums, including diced raw red onions and scallions, offer a sharp contrast while a bed of large lettuce leaves and steamed or sticky white rice provide balance, and something to soak up some of the spice. (Lao dishes pack plenty of heat, so order accordingly.)
Though Laos doesn’t have a coastline, there are several dishes here with a seafood focus. And while chicken, pork and beef highlight the menu, fish, seafood and tofu are options on most entree-style plates.
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Another can’t-miss dish is the nam khao ($9.95), a crazy-delicious crispy rice medley hailing from the country’s capital city, Vientiane. Served with large lettuce leaves for wrapping, the rice is flavored and textured with dried, shredded coconut, fried until crispy and tossed with salty, slightly sweet hunks of fermented pork, dried chili peppers and a handful of peanuts, which provide a welcome crunch. The dish leans milder than others and I happily doctored it with spoonfuls of jeow bong, a deep crimson chili paste flavored with garlic and fish sauce.
While the pungent flavor of fermented fish sauce isn’t for everyone, I enjoy the slight tang it brings to some dishes, though it’s definitely possible to overdo. Thum mua ($12.95), a plate of bouncy vermicelli noodles tossed with shrimp and meatballs and garnished with crispy fried pork rinds, was a little heavy on the funk for my taste buds.
Coconut milk doesn’t feature as prominently in Lao cooking as it does in Thai cuisine, but there are several dishes on the menu that utilize it for a creamy nudge, including the khao poon ($9.95), a velvety chicken noodle soup dense with red curry paste and thick hunks of chicken. The soup is served with a bouquet of shaved raw carrots, mung bean sprouts and fresh herbs, which diners can add in as they please.
Most dishes include the option of steamed white or the glutinous sticky rice called khao niew — and if given the choice, I’d always pick the latter. It’s especially delightful in the mango sticky rice ($6.95) served for dessert, which comes swimming in a thick and creamy coconut cream and garnished with juicy slices of fresh mango.
I usually get takeout when dining here — a pandemic habit I just can’t seem to shake. On the occasions where I’ve popped in to pick up my food, the service has always been so polite and friendly that I leave feeling tempted to just grab a seat and enjoy my dinner right there. In any case, I always tell myself that I’ll be back soon. The restaurant recently launched a much larger, expanded menu, and I think it’s safe to assume there’s plenty more to explore.
If you go
Where: 4366 Park Blvd. N, Pinellas Park. 727-623-9730.
Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon-3 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 5-9 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95 to $10.95; Entrees, $11.95 to $15.95.
Don’t skip: Nam khao, laap gai, khao poon.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Some vegetarian and vegan options offered.