I didn't think I knew Lao cuisine. I was wrong. I just thought it was Thai. Larb, som tom and many stir-fried noodle dishes may all be served in Thai restaurants but their origin is Lao. Through waves of migration, the epicenter of Lao cuisine moved south to Thailand (there are more ethnic Lao in Bangkok than Laos' capital, Vientiane). This, combined with a government-forced policy of Thaification, served to obscure the Lao roots of dishes we think of as Thai.
A trip to Sang Deuan (3904 Convoy St., Suite 112) brings the Lao heritage of familiar "Thai" dishes back into focus. Take, for example, larb—a classic dish of minced meat, ground toasted rice, lime, chilies, scallions, lemongrass and herbs. Lao people refer to themselves as "descendants of sticky rice." They use the ubiquitous sticky rice as a utensil to eat the larb. It's tasty and fun.
The key to larb is the balance of salty, sweet, spicy and bitter flavors. I love the dish at Thai restaurants, but there's a key difference to the Lao version at Sang Deuan: padaek. It's is a fermented fish sauce that is both stronger and funkier than its Thai counterpart. One whiff of the pungent stuff and you'd wonder why anyone would cook with it. But, used judiciously, it gives a dish a slight funk and ineffable depth. It was used judiciously here and was particularly evident in a chicken version. That was, similarly, the key to the spicy green papaya salad (som tom).
Phad lao seems immediately familiar, a Lao take on something between the more familiar pad thai and pad see euw (versions of both appear on the Sang Deuan menu). One difference is the addition of a chopped omelet. But it's the addition of dark soy sauce and the padaek that bring this dish to another, deeper level.
Perhaps the most interesting dishes at Sang Deuan are the soups. Khao peak sen is a milky broth featuring house-made rice noodles and cubes of pork blood, highlighting the Lao enthusiasm for using every part of a creature. The dish read as a Lao version of pho with lightness and subtlety replacing the muscular depth of the Vietnamese soup.
If khao peak sen is Lao pho, khao poon num pla is Lao laksa. While curries don't feature in Lao cuisine as much as Thai, this spicy coconut curry fish soup with rice vermicelli is the exception. A long-simmered dish featuring kaffir lime, galangal, chicken and pork as well as the curry and fish broth, it is a deeply comforting dish.
And that is part of the real mystery of Lao cuisine. Built on ingredients as unfamiliar and off-putting as padaek, it somehow manages to feel a lot more comforting than you'd figure.