Most Americans don’t know much about Laos or its cuisine. And, until recently, there weren’t that many Laotian restaurants in the United States. Fortunately, for knowledge-hungry — and actual-hungry — Richmonders, Temple near the Fan District offers a rare lesson in Lao cuisine. Bordered by China, Thailand and Vietnam, Laos shares and reflects in rich and interesting ways the more familiar culinary traditions of these neighboring countries. As experts have observed, “any discussion about Lao cuisine cannot be limited to Laos.” That’s because, in its cuisine, Laos transcends its own borders.
Temple succeeds at capturing the geographical diversity of flavors in Lao cuisine. Half the menu is dedicated to Laotian soups. The “jok gai” ($10), a hearty rice porridge with chicken and sliced shitakes and ginger, was as restorative as the Chinese version known as “gai jook,” which my parents would make whenever we got sick. Garnishing the dish was pork floss, a savory-sweet condiment of dried pork with the consistency of cotton candy, a staple in every Chinese pantry.
The “guay teaw neau” ($12.50) — vermicelli noodles in a hauntingly herbal and aromatic yet mildly sweet bone broth — brought to mind Vietnamese pho. Bobbing around the bowl was a trove of meaty odds-and-ends: stewed beef, rugged and grudgingly tender; tripe, bovine and bristly; and tendon, lip-sticking and gelatinous. The dish felt as if it had been simmering for hours over a grandmother’s stove in a Lao village nestled along the Mekong River.
The other half of the menu, under the heading of “everything else,” is literally that. The “sai krok” ($8), a Thai sausage, reminded me of a more robust and savory version of Chinese lap cheong. It paired well with the astringent sweetness of diced red onion, the nudgingly insistent heat of sliced ginger, and the vegetal bitterness of shredded cabbage.
For Laotian surf-and-turf at its finest, try the “pla muk jatsai” ($13.50) — a deeply flavored larb-like filling of ground pork encased in squid rings, grilled just long enough to acquire smokiness and textural bite. (Larb, a spicy minced meat salad often associated with the Isan region of Thailand, originated in Laos.) This dish came with a fruity-spicy nam jim, or Thai-style dipping sauce steeped with red chiles, which added a welcome undercurrent of sweetness and heat to each bite.
A vibrant Lao rice salad, the “yum nam kao tod” ($10), showcased a stark contrast of textures and flavors that went beautifully with the chewy grains of sticky rice: roasted peanuts and fried bits of sour pork for an unctuous crunch; cilantro, red onion and lemon juice for some bright zest; ginger and chiles for that bracing wave of heat; and fish sauce for a little briny funk. (My husband ordered this each time we went — it was that good.)
The “bun mee moo dang” ($12.50), a dish of Thai origin now under “soups,” was once under “everything else” and understandably so. The bowl contained a shallow layer of sauce-like broth, with an intense, almost salted caramel-like flavor elicited from the oyster sauce. There was enough broth to stain the egg noodles crimson, but not so much as to sap their delightful springiness. Piled high were slices of roast pork, lacquered with a sweet red glaze, and sand-like grains of fried garlic. The dish had a salty-sweetness that triggered the pleasure center of the brain and a mild heat that tingled the tongue.
Although there were some missteps, such as the rice paper shrimp rolls that tasted as if they’d been pulled right out of the fridge (“po pia sod,” $6) and the coconut curry rice noodles (“kahnom chin nam ya gai,” $13) that had turned into a bland and splutteringly mushy mess, even those dishes managed to stay true to their Laotian roots.
Indeed, it’s often tempting to dumb down ethnic foods that American diners are less familiar with to make them more accessible. I commend Temple for not doing that. Not a single dish at Temple compromises its mission of serving authentic Lao cuisine by pandering to a more Western palate. Temple excels while faithfully executing this mission. Its food transports you to Laos and back — and, if you’re like me, you’ll want to plan a return trip.