Say It Lao'd

Explore the intricate bombast of Lao cuisine

Eager to try Lao food, someone we know once asked a Lao woman for a restaurant recommendation. "My house," she replied.

The reasoning is sound: There are about 20,000 to 30,000 Lao people in the Bay Area, and restaurants serving food from Laos are rare.

For those of us lacking a dinner-party invitation, Vientian Café–situated on the ground floor of a former house in East Oakland–provides an introduction that's as delicious as if it came from a home kitchen.

Lao cuisine shares staple ingredients with Thai food–lemongrass, fish sauce and garlic–but is distinguished by its use of raw greens, freshwater fish and herbs like dill.

Fish gently steamed in banana leaves, mok pa ($6), evokes a pillowy tamale. In kao piak ($6), fluffy noodles splash in stock with chicken and cubes of cooked pork blood; it's a rich backdrop for a lively garnish of scallions and nutty browned garlic.

Raw beef larp ($7) is a potent salad fortified with tripe and fragrant mint leaves. Slices of nose-clearing chiles stud the slippery pile like mines, but uncooked leaves of cabbage balance each bite. Be sure to purchase a container of house-made jerky ($5) to go–it's sweet and far beefier than anything a corner store sells.

At Vientian Café, you'll sit at a lopsided table, eat bathed in harsh lights and bring your own beer–inconsequential discomforts for such scintillating food.

Vientian Café, 3801 Allendale (at 38th Ave.), Oakland; 510-535-2219