I forgot to post this Tuesday. Oops.
Here we are in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment.”
Here’s what we’ve done so far: Eat. And then eat again. And right now? We’re about to go eat.
I came to Amritsar with only one restaurant recommendation: Kesar Da Dhaba. It came from the brother of my colleague, Shafali. When I searched for it online, I discovered it was tripadvisor‘s number one restaurant in town! I didn’t get a good look at the place when the rickshaw brought us here for lunch (only to find it was closed), but I knew not to get my expectations too high.
Our taxi parked a short distance away, and the driver got out to help us find the restaurant. We meandered through some alleys and eventually found it. At around 6:30 p.m., we were the only ones there. In most countries, that would be a red flag, but Indians eat dinner well after our bedtime.
The decor could be described as “prison minimalist” with a Coke poster to liven up the joint. We sat in concrete booths with gray marble tables and cluelessly perused the menu. The waiter appeared and cheerfully addressed us in Hindi. We ordered water, which he seemed to understand.
Then we experienced a classic ESL moment: Oftentimes, teachers present English learners with a choice, “Do you want to use crayons or colored pencils?” and the kids respond, “Yes.” You can’t help but giggle. Unless you’re the one saying “yes.” So the waiter said, “Blah blah blah” with one hand extended, followed by “blah blah blah” with his other hand extended. And we said, “Yes!” Then he shook his head (oh boy, been there, done that) and repeated the “blah blah blahs” with the hand gestures, to which we repeated, “Yes!” Finally, he laughed, wandered away and returned with two bottles of water – one cold and one at room temperature. Oh, right!
The confusion continued. We had no idea what to order. So I pointed to the menu, made a thumbs-up gesture (please don’t let that be offensive in India), rubbed my tummy and smacked my lips, pointed at the waiter and then shrugged my shoulders, which is obviously the international message: “What’s good here?” Somehow it all worked out. Our meal – parantha thali (which kind of translates to “delicious flat bread with a few small servings of other things on a round tray”) – featured bowls of dal (fried lentils), channa masala (spicy/sweet chickpeas), raita (thick yogurt with cucumber) and the most delicious butter nan bread I’ve ever tasted.
There’s very little on this planet that I won’t eat, and I don’t have a lot of hang-ups when it comes to hygiene or western standards at restaurants. That said, I am SO glad we visited the kitchen AFTER dinner. It was open to the street, and the cooks sat cross-legged on the counter.
Katrina took this one.
It’s with a heavy heart that I report on our last Family Night dinner here in Vientiane. As the day approached, we wracked our brains to pick a restaurant worthy of this momentous occasion. Nikki researched a dinner cruise on the Mekong, but most feedback suggested health-and-safety standards were questionable. (After all this time in Asia, I wouldn’t know a health-and-safety standard if it punched me in the face, but I did wonder whether chartering a boat for four people would really be all that fun.)
We finally settled on Mak Phet, a lovely little joint that trains street kids to work in the restaurant industry. We had all been there before and savored several of the delicious Lao dishes. Carol and Nikki arrived at the restaurant first and discovered the menu had changed. Nothing sounded good enough to warrant the unusually high prices, so we held a quick family meeting and moved the party to my favorite restaurant in town: Lao Kitchen.
Lao Kitchen is owned by Noy, a woman who used to work in our school canteen. She and her staff prepare fantastic Lao food bursting with fresh flavors. Some of my favorite dishes include chicken wrapped in pandan leaves (which comes with a to-die-for citrus/chili sauce), curry with tofu, stir-fried morning glory (with an insane amount of garlic), basil stir fry, ginger stir fry and any other stir fry. You almost can’t go wrong. The only thing I didn’t love at Lao Kitchen was the crispy pork (no, it’s nothing like bacon), although I didn’t try the duck bills (been there, done that) or the “chicken knees and elbows.”
Living so far away from home, we often find ourselves craving familiar comfort food like burgers or mashed potatoes or big salads with fancy candied nuts. It’s easy to get bored with the local cuisine; no matter how much you love it, you can only eat so much sticky rice. In Vientiane, we can choose from Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Mediterranean, Indian, Belgian, Thai, German, French, Mexican (well, it’s really more of a brothel), and countless other ethnic culinary options. But I have found myself sipping a cold Beer Lao to wash down that spicy Lao Kitchen curry probably once a week since it opened. That’s a real testament to how fab (and cheap) this place really is.
But I saved the best for last: mango with sticky rice and coconut milk. Possibly the world’s most perfect dessert. It sounds so simple, and yet I have goosebumps of joy as I write this.
Following our final Family Night dinner, we all motored to Walkman Village, a treasure trove of imported knock-off designer crap. We tried on swim caps with Nikki and helped Carol pick out a Prada bag for her teaching assistant.
No, that’s not a meth lab. Tony’s crashed on the mattress in our living room and the girls are drinking out of plastic kegger cups because the movers hauled away all our stuff this week.
Well, this story is getting a big stale, eh? If you’re new to Family Night, here’s the scoop: Tony, a couple friends (Carol and Nikki) and I take turns picking a local restaurant for dinner once a week. By “local,” we mean nearby and geared toward Lao customers.
This week’s Family Night restaurant had all the requisite components: twinkly lights, yellow Beer Lao-sponsored restaurant sign, karaoke, indecipherable menu, no English speakers on staff, and friendly fellow diners. Carol had chosen the open-air Soundara Restaurant, a little joint just a couple meters off Tha Deua, one of Vientiane’s main thoroughfares.
We grabbed a table overlooking the motorbike parking area (really just the shoulder of the road), where the bored parking attendant and a little boy played with battery-operated dinosaurs. The roadside restaurant’s location explains the gritty film on the tabletop, but there’s no excuse for the nails poking out of my chair that nearly shredded my jeans.
Before we could say “Beer Lao,” the ubiquitous refreshment appeared on the table. Ordering food, however, proved a bit more challenging. One waitress fooled us with her confident use of English numbers and animal words. We tried to order random dishes, so we said – and she repeated while scribbling on a pad – “One chicken, one fish, one shrimp, one fried rice” and so on. She scurried away, and we waited. And waited. Finally, she returned with three other waitresses and the busboy, who all chattered at us in Lao despite our humiliated laughter and our insistence, in Lao, that we didn’t understand.
At that point, it was time to call reinforcements. Nikki dialed our Lao friend Addie, who answered the phone with “I’ve been expecting your call.” Nikki handed her phone to the restaurant staff, who huddled around the telephone to record our order.
In the meantime, we all continued to sing along with the men at the next table to the Thai pop songs (and occasional English-language tune) playing on the karaoke screen. This place was clearly unprepared for a band of western songsters: they played neither Mariah nor the Eagles, much to our disappointment.
More disappointment came with the food. The soup cleaned out my sinuses, but the fried chicken comprised mostly chunks of cartilage and the veggies were uncharacteristically bland. Just as we were ready to write off this place for good, the fish came out and rocked our world. Usually restaurant fish here is literally just a fish: intact and grilled. This one had been dismantled, mixed with some herbs and spices, breaded and deep-fried. Bring it on!
The verdict? Pleasant enough ambiance, mediocre food, interesting karaoke selections, monolingual but undeterred servers, and Vientiane’s most tasty fish.
All Family Night photos this week are brought to you by Carol.
This week’s Family Night began with its usual trepidation and ended with us wearing the restaurant’s promotional polo shirts, jumping up and down in our own little mosh pit and singing “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi with the karaoke microphones.
In our ongoing quest to find a neighborhood joint we can call “our place,” we once again strayed from the familiar, safe comfort food of Vientiane’s western-style restaurants. A few other friends (whom we refer to as the out-of-town cousins à la the Griswolds and Cousin Eddie) joined us for the evening. Carol wouldn’t tell us where we were going, so we all met at our house and car-pooled. Well, there was just one car, so some of us crammed in the car; the others followed on motorbikes.
Carol’s eatery du jour was just off Khouvieng Road, a main artery that runs from our neck of the woods all the way to downtown. We pulled in to Khouvieng Country’s parking area, and the owner immediately came running out. He enthusiastically pumped Carol’s hand, saying, “Hello! I remember you!” She gently pointed out that they’d never met.
Our attention swiftly turned to the karaoke system, which was belting out “I Can’t Live” by Mariah Carey. Before we could set down our bags, Nikki was already at the front, mic in hand with a small but adoring Lao audience singing along. Her biggest fan, a tipsy Lao man who was friends with the owner, hovered at our table for much of the night, buying us beers and cheering for us to take the stage.
The restaurant’s décor was typical – lots of wood, garish fake flowers, twinkly lights, murals of traditional Lao landscapes, shiny colorful knick-knacks, etc. Unique features included battery-operated tea lights on the tables and a thatched roof overhanging the stage to create the illusion of a “sala,” the open-air little huts that dot the countryside. The staff was friendly and attentive, clearly amused by us.
Deterred only momentarily by the all-Lao menu (none of us could read Lao script well enough to decipher it), Carol gave her usual instructions to the friendly owner: Bring us your five best dishes, preferably with no faces, bones or organs. Those turned out to be a green salad, spicy papaya salad, fried rice, barbecued chicken, and tom yam soup. The fried rice was some of the best I’ve had, with shrimp and chunks of some other savory meat I couldn’t identify. The chicken was also tasty, although the “no bones” request was blatantly ignored.
We were all a bit disappointed in the papaya salad, a local specialty that inspires a brutal sense of competition among Lao women, who all think they make it better than anyone else. Once you’ve tried homemade papaya salad prepared by a lady with something to prove, you’re bound to be let down by restaurant fare.
Anyway, it was hard to focus on the food when the guy running the karaoke system was clearly creating a song list tailor-made for the crazy expat crowd. We sounded terrible, but the Lao restaurant patrons wore huge smiles, waved their arms in the air, clapped and sang, sometimes actually getting up from their tables to deliver a microphone and push us toward the stage.
What could be more fun than eating and singing with your friends? Eating and singing in matching shirts! The restaurant owner brought out a pile of promotional polo shirts and passed them around. “Free! Free!” he said, handing out extras. “For your friends!” Tony’s first shirt was skin tight, which was awesome, but the kind owner heard our laughter and brought out a larger size.
The shirts were like superhero costumes. Suddenly, we all thought we were rock stars, and there was no getting us off the stage. Looking at the photos, I realize now we looked like the Partridge Family.
At one point, Carol and I pulled an older Lao lady away from her table and made her dance with us. She was a good sport and moved her mouth randomly to suggest she knew the words. There weren’t many people at the restaurant, but everyone seemed to enjoy our ridiculous display of misplaced confidence.
When we wrapped up our Bon Jovi finale, we filed out the door, waving and thanking everyone as if they had paid to see us. Best Family Night ever! Nikki says it was even the most fun she’s had in Laos so far. Khouvieng Country will be hard to top.
Here are a few more shots from our Khouvieng Country concert.
After the grilled duck faces at our first Family Night dinner, our little posse lost some of its enthusiasm for the village restaurants. However, we didn’t give up. Surely we could find a local joint to call “our place.”
The week after Anna Grilled Duck, it was Tony’s turn to pick an eatery. He chose Europe Steak House, which actually doesn’t serve any food from Europe. Your steak options are (a) Lao, which is both cheap and chewy, or (b) New Zealander, which is expensive and worth it. The next week, Carol got to choose a place, but she broke the keep-it-local rule. In honor of her birthday, she opted to go downriver and upscale so we ate Mekong-side at The Spirit House.
Our school director, Greg, had sent his wife and in-laws off to Luang Prabang, so he bravely tagged along with us. We tentatively ventured in – past the wall mural of people eating at Pinky Beef Pot, past the Christmas garland and Santa poster, past the bar and requisite Beer Lao fridge – and stepped down into a garden. Twinkly lights draped the trees, and crockery pots on miniature grills boiled on each colorful table. Lao families and couples looked up to check out the “falang” entourage.
A waitress in a Beer Lao uniform approached our table. Almost every restaurant in Vientiane has waitresses dressed in Beer Lao uniforms, so we assumed she would take our order.
“Beer Lao,” she said.
A quick survey around the table, and we asked for two big bottles of Beer Lao and two bottles of water.
“Beer Lao,” she said again, implying that she was ONLY taking our Beer Lao order. Another waiter dashed over to fill our request for non-beer beverages.
As usual, we weren’t sure about the protocol. The menu featured English labels and lots of pictures, so we ordered beef, pork, fried rice and glass “noondles.” We started to order some veggies, but the waitress pointed to the menu artwork of the meat, which was – sure enough – accompanied by a picture of greens. Ahhh, the meat comes with vegetables, we deduced.
Like magic, our table was suddenly packed with two hot pots, plates of thinly sliced meat, ramekins of sauce and chopped chilis, bowls of fried rice, and baskets of leafy vegetables, garlic and onions. We dropped the meat and veggies into the steaming pots, which we think contained a mixture of water, oil and spices.
Then we sat back and waited. A waitress whisked away all our empties and told us to let everything cook for five minutes (although it took a lot of body language and apparently unintelligible Lao language from me to get this tip).
The Beer Lao girl broke character momentarily to encourage ample servings of sauce with each bite. That turned out to be good advice; the nutty sauce mixed with chopped chilis perfectly complemented the hot pot concoction.
At one point, we realized we were singing along to the music, a fun mix of Top 40 from the 80s and 90s. For us? Almost certainly. After awhile, the speakers resumed the usual blaring of traditional Lao tunes and Thai pop songs.
As we were leaving, a cute little girl hollered for our attention and then demonstrated her Lao dance moves. Just like we saw so often in Turkey, the young girls in Laos learn traditional dances from their mothers, sisters and aunties early on.
We took a poll and gave Pinky Beef Pot high marks for service, food and ambience. And then Tony delivered the pièce de résistance: There was ice cream on the menu! Lao people generally don’t “do” dessert. You can get yummy sweets at the western restaurants, but you can’t plan on an after-dinner treat at most local places. When the waiter brought out real parfait glasses with scoops of real ice cream, we all felt a little giddy.
Last year Daeng cooked dinners for us three nights a week. She usually prepared so much food that we could eat leftovers for lunch. This year she wanted to go back to school to study English, and of course we wanted to support her (big eye roll). So we kept her salary the same but cut her hours to half-time. Now she only cooks once a week, and the rest of the time Tony and I feel like hunter-gatherers. We never really know where our next meal will come from.
With no car, shopping for groceries is a bit of a challenge. We generally buy one backpack full at a time. That’s one excuse for not making a weekly menu, buying food and cooking at home. We could also whine about the inconvenience of buying produce at the fresh market and other supplies at the corner store, which likely will be out of whatever we need, forcing us to visit other shops in town. But, in all honesty, our biggest excuse involves an amalgamation of ennui, laziness, exhaustion, sweat and empty pockets. We’re simply shattered at the end of the day, and it’s strangely more expensive to cook at home for the two of us than it is to eat out.
So here it is Monday night, and I haven’t eaten a meal in my own house (other than a little fruit and yogurt for breakfast a couple times and a delivery pizza) since Daeng cooked fried rice last Tuesday.
We live about 15 minutes by motorbike from the center of Vientiane, where most decent restaurants are found. Our village, Thongkang, is not exactly a dining mecca. Nevertheless, our new friend, Carol, (Canadian chemistry teacher and fellow Thongkang resident) had the brilliant idea to try a different local eatery each week. Tony reluctantly agreed to participate, and another new friend, Nikki (Canadian counselor and resident of adjoining Sokpaluang village) signed on, as well.
Thursday night the four of us ventured around the corner to Anna Grilled Duck. A skinny guy wearing a face mask and grilling duck parts by the side of the road gestured us in to the restaurant garden, where we parked the motorbikes.
The restaurant comprised several “salas” – which are thatch-roofed wall-less huts, each with a low table and cushions. Tony balked at the idea of sitting cross-legged on a cushion for an entire meal, so we bypassed the salas and found a regular table with chairs. A fish with an abnormally large head watched us from its tank, while a bird in a cage chattered nearby.
Placenta soup? No thanks. We ordered four ducks and some Beer Lao. I walked around the peaceful garden area to snap a few photos while we waited. The meat on the grill should have been a tip-off. Yep, that’s duck feet on the left, duck faces on the right, and unidentifiable duck bits on the back.
Soup soon arrived at the table. What kind? Who knows? Spring onions, various veggies and the requisite coagulated blood cubes floated in a clear broth. Carol was the only one brave enough to suck down a blood cube. She said it tasted like tofu.
Finally a small plate of duck chunks arrived at the table. It was like the cook put on a blindfold and went wacko with a cleaver. The pieces were random sizes and full of bones, so it was quite a chore to get a substantial mouthful of meat. What little I did get was quite tasty, though.
We felt certain that more duck was coming, so we waited and waited until we nearly gnawed off our own arms. Carol eventually ordered a few more plates of duck. This time, the pieces were a bit more recognizable. I was about to nibble on one piece when I realized it was the duck’s bill. In fact, we had a whole plate of faces!
Next week: Mr. Khampeng’s Grilled Goat. Or maybe not.