Once ranging from poor to mediocre, the food in Pakbeng has improved over the years, though it still tries to please all backpackers with long menus of ubiquitous dishes like fried rice, fried noodles, spring rolls and steak and chips. Restaurants have copied each other’s menus, right down to the photos and spelling mistakes. For a few restaurants, the increased competition, especially for tour group business, has given some impetus to produce better quality food, even if there will never be any return customers. The restaurants are bustling in high season.
Ounhoan Restaurant is a lively spot with long wood tables, music and friendly staff making for a convivial atmosphere. The Lao/Thai soups and curries, at 35,000 kip, are spot on and even though the restaurant had several large groups and was bursting at the seams when we went, we didn’t have to wait too long for our food. It’s across from Phonemany Guesthouse and Restaurant, which is itself packed nightly. The large menu signboard here is the same as the other restaurants in town but it attracts most people. Maybe it’s the building’s neon green facade or the flashy "Taxi Pizza" franchise stand in front. It has the usual fare of stir-fries, spring rolls and steaks.
DP Restaurant opened in February 2015. It’s the most mainstream Western eatery in town, with sleek signage, a brightly lit interior and even outlets in the walls so flashpackers can recharge their precious electronic connections to the outside world. Though it doesn’t have as much earthy backpackery character or ambience as some of the other joints in town, we appreciate that their menu is small and focused on Western fare instead of running the gamut of generic Asian dishes. Mains from 25,000 kip.
There are two Indian restaurants in town, one good and one poor. The restaurant on the main road in the centre of town is the most popular but it serves up slop and soggy bread. It fills your stomach – but that’s all. The better option for Indian food is a short walk up the left road from the pier, across from Mekong Riverside Lodge. Kopchai Deu is much more like authentic Indian food and the chef obviously puts a bit of effort into the food. Often you’ll be enticed inside with a free bottle of lao-lao.
There are quite a number of restaurants all claiming to be bakeries selling such delights as bagels and baguettes but in reality the bagel is a simple airy hamburger bun and the baguettes are Asian hotdog buns. Many of these places do roaring trade in the morning as travellers grab food for the river journey.
Monesavan Bakery is the best of them. It’s located directly across from the same-named guesthouse close to the pier – and it entices with an attractive display of fresh baked goodies including a nut-topped banana cake worthy of sharing with new mates on the slow boat. And screw instant coffee! They have a proper coffee/espresso machine to boot.
A decent, clean noodle soup stand serves Lao fer diagonally across from Donevilasuk Guesthouse. You get a big bowl and plenty of fresh herbs and greens to add in. "Bo sai sin" if you want it without meat, otherwise you’ll probably have a choice of pork, chicken or buffalo.
Rather than have your guesthouse make you a lunch box for the next day, you can wait until the morning when there’s a much bigger range of sellers and sandwich stalls competing for your business -- you can see the ingredients they are using and the prices are better.