SOUR, BITTER AND SPICY

In Jersey, good Lao food is
hard to find—except in Maywood

Photography by Clay Williams

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A prominent notice on the menu and
specials whiteboard warns customers
about the spicy dishes—you can specify
a spice level from one to five. If you ask
for number three or higher, and you
haven’t visited before, Samlane will visit
your table just to make sure you know
what you are in for.

When Samlane Sysounthone welcomes you, don’t be fooled by her broad smile. Behind that sweet, grandmotherly greeting is a chef who delivers a powerful cuisine unlike anything else in New Jersey.

Samlane and her husband Soubanh do the cooking at Pho Thai- Lao Kitchen in Maywood, the only New Jersey restaurant I have found devoted to Lao cuisine. The Lao region of Southeast Asia straddles the Mekong River in Laos and northeastern Thailand.

Soubanh is from the Laotian capital Vientiane, while Samlane is from the Isaan region of Thailand, where the couple met and married. The cuisine of Laos is distinct from the food of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam. Less sweet than most Thai cooking and more assertive than many Vietnamese dishes, Lao cooking embraces sour, bitter and spicy flavors, featuring citrusy galangal (a ginger-like rhizome); green herbs like lemongrass, cilantro and mint; fiery Thai chilies; and pungent fermented fish sauce.

Soubanh and Samlane emigrated in 1980 with their five children to northern New Jersey, where they began catering events at Thai temples in Bergen County. New Jersey’s Lao population is relatively small and Lao restaurants are difficult to find east of the Mississippi. So with the help of family members—their son Chandara and daughter-in-law Achara are the owners—the Sysounthones opened their first restaurant in Maywood in June 2011.

In a narrow corner building just off Route 80 on Maywood Avenue, Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen’s small dining room has only 14 tables. Look for the white sign outside with “Pho” on a yellow leaf. Inside, colorful decorations represent a mix of Thai and Lao culture. Service is unhurried and very friendly. Feel free to ask questions. In the tiny kitchen behind the dining room, Soubanh mans the grill while Samlane works her magic with fresh ingredients. “All of her recipes she learned from her grandmother,” Soubanh points out. Samlane makes all the sauces and marinades from scratch, including a noteworthy fermented fish sauce that gives many Lao dishes their punch. Many preparations are time-consuming. The wonderful sour fish (pla som), for example, is washed ten times as it marinates and pickles.

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Left: Homemade spice paste; Right: Pla som tod

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Thai coconut pudding

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Thai soup

The Pho Thai-Lao menu lists appetizers and noodle soups, and has separate Thai and Lao sections. The Thai dishes, like pad thai and red or green curry, are prepared with less sugar and coconut milk than you may be accustomed to at other Thai restaurants. Tom yum, as an appetizer or main course, is an intensely spicy, sour and salty soup flavored with lemon leaf and lemongrass. Kaffir lime gives the beef noodle soup—a steaming bowl of Vietnamese-style pho filled with meatballs, beef slices and thin rice noodles—a lovely sour tang. When my family visits, I seek out unusual Lao items from the menu or specials board. The Lao dishes emphasize sour over sweet, and do not feature coconut milk. Try a Lao crepe of chicken and bean sprouts with crispy rice flour and rice noodles. Many plates, like the papaya salad (som tum), are served at room temperature.

The crispy fried rice with pork sausage (nam khao), to be scooped up with lettuce leaves, is a crunchy rice–lover’s dream, flavored with peanuts, scallions, mint, cilantro, chilies, lime and Samlane’s fish sauce. Any of the spicy-sour larb dishes with meat or fish deliver the spectrum of Lao flavors. Larb uer, chopped morsels of beef and tripe with plenty of scallions, is an excellent introduction. Other Lao menu items include gob kratiem (crispy frogs’ legs in garlic sauce) and e-saan “fermented” spare ribs or sausage. The dish that really stands out, however, is pla som tod, a grilled whole red snapper “pickled” in Lao fish sauce and salt, presented on a bed of sautéed onions, garlic and vegetables. Every bite delivers an explosive salty-sour flavor unlike any fish I have tasted. The numbing effects on the tongue call to mind the sensations triggered by fiery Szechuan peppercorns. Most dishes come with sticky rice, served in distinctive individual steamer baskets. Traditionally, Lao diners eat sticky rice by hand. You don’t have to.

Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen is the place to go if you enjoy spicy food the way it is served in Southeast Asia: at the upper reaches of the Scoville scale. A prominent notice on the menu and specials whiteboard warns customers about the spicy dishes—you can specify a spice level from one (“like Tabasco sauce”) to five (“hot as the infamous ghost pepper”). If you ask for number three or higher, and you haven’t visited before, Samlane will visit your table just to make sure you know what you are in for. “I have to double-check so the dish doesn’t come back to the kitchen,” she says. Spice level zero is an option, but starred menu items go no lower than one. I love spicy food and level two is all I can manage here. A level-one green curry chicken here might be considered very spicy at more Americanized Thai restaurants. On one visit, a very helpful server suggested a “1.5” spice selection to apprehensive diners. A glass of sweet Thai iced tea with condensed milk can help sensitive taste buds recover.

The precisely calibrated spiciness comes from fresh, dried and powdered Thai chilies. Every August, the Sysounthones head to a farm in South Jersey to collect 500 pounds of fresh chilies, of two varieties grown from imported Thai seeds, that they will use for the rest of the year.

For dessert, there is Thai coconut pudding (kanom krok), little rice-flour-and-coconut sweet custards cooked individually in a castiron skillet, topped with scallions. They are a little sweet, but mostly savory, and unlike anything you are used to—an apt description for Samlane’s recipes and the powerful flavors of Lao food.

Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen
219 Maywood Ave., Maywood
201.712.0700
phothailao.com

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