Oct 31 2012
Noodle shops are abundant in Laos and noodle soup is a favourite meal at any time of day. There is, unfortunately, a long spectrum when it comes to quality of soups. Some places serve aromatic and refreshing bowls of deliciousness; others warm MSG-infused water with meat that looks as if a one-armed blind pirate hacked it to pieces. If you’re on the lookout for some tasty noodle soup, the first step should be checking out the ingredients at the front of the shop. A huge pot of steaming broth is a good sign, as is fresh meat that doesn’t smell musky and vegetables looking crisp and green.
Soup sizes are noy (small), nyai (large) and sometimes tamada (medium), although the small is often sufficient and the large leaves one wondering where a slender Lao would put all of that liquid. Meat is a standard ingredient, and though they will hold it if you say ‘bor sai seen‘, do be warned that the broth is generally always made with meat stock, so vegetarians should order something else. Soup is usually a safe street food, because everything is boiled.
Pho (feuhr) originated in Vietnam, but it has become a staple of the Lao diet and acquired its own style and flavour. The Lao usually serve pho with a massive serving of vegetables — green beans, bean sprouts, lettuce, mint, basil, fresh lime or tomato — resting on your table as a lush centrepiece. The best pho places also serve a dish of mildly spicy sauce made of tomato and peanuts, which is delicious in soup or as a dip for the veggies on the side.
A favourite place to eat pho in Vientiane is Pho Zap! located on Phai Nam Road around the corner from That Dam. Established in 1958, this shop has had time to perfect the traditional recipe and their broth is richly flavoured, with hints of toasted cinnamon, fennel and star anise. Meat choices are pork or beef, with prices running at 17,000 kip for a small, 20,000 kip for a large and 25,000 kip for a jumbo. A bowl bor sai seen is 15,000 kip. Pho Zap! is open from breakfast until 15:00.
One of the most popular local pho places is a bit further out of town, but perfectly located to combine with a visit to That Luang or the Military Museum. Their pho comes with all the trimmings plus tasty red iced tea. A standard bowl has beef, meatballs and tripe, although if you wish to hold the tripe, say ‘bor sai nyohr’ pronouncing ‘nyohr‘ in as nasal a voice as you can. The small, medium and large are 15,000, 20,000 and 25,000 kip respectively.
The sign for the place is only in Lao, but it’s not too difficult to find: go to the far left end of the enormous paved lot in front That Luang, past the National Assembly. You’ll see the Military Museum on your left. Make an immediate right onto the road running directly behind the paved lot. At your first left you’ll see a blue and white sign and usually a bunch of parked cars. This is the place. It’s open for breakfast and lunch.
As well as tucking into pho, a good bowl of khao piak is a must-try when travelling in Laos. Compared to the thin and delicate noodles of pho, khao piak is made of thickly rolled rice noodles, similar in size and texture to Japanese udon noodles. The noodles are usually accompanied by meat, crispy fried onion flakes and morning glory.
One of the best places to get khao piak in central Vientiane is Nam Phou Coffee, located on the corner of Pangkham Road and Samsenthai. It’s open for breakfast and lunch. They serve khao piak with moo gop (crispy pork), sin gai (chicken) or sin beht (duck). If opting for no meat, they add a generous serving of morning glory. The bowls are 13,000 kip for noy and 16,000 kip for nyai. There’s optional khao nom, a chromosome-shaped savoury doughnut for dipping in the soup, at 1,000 kip a piece.
Do take notice of all the accompanying condiments you’ll be served with your soup in Laos. Standard salty condiments are soy sauce and fish sauce, which is far more salty than fishy. For sweet, you’ll find some sugar and orange-red sweet chilli sauce. To add a dash of sour, your soup will come with fresh lime wedges and you’ll also find a bottle of white vinegar. Khao piak is also traditionally served with ginger, so you’ll hopefully find a tub of grated ginger in water on your table when ordering that dish.
Last, but not least, various incarnations of chillies should be on the table. Dried chilli flakes add a fair bit of heat and the whole raw chilli peppers add more. You’ll sometimes find chopped chillies in vinegar, which are hot with a nice sour tang. Finally, you’re guaranteed to find a tub of chilli flakes soaking in oil, which is deliciously spicy — a light drizzle is sufficient, as the heat from the chilli pepper comes from its natural oil, so soaking the seeds in more oil amplifies this burn. Moreover, the heat from this sauce is somehow greater going out than it was coming in, and many an unsuspecting foreigner have found themselves humming ‘Ring of Fire’ the day after a spicy bowl of soup. Be warned and enjoy!
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