Lao and Clear

From the land of fish sauce and chiles

Last fall, San Francisco had exactly zero Laotian restaurants. As of January, it has more like two and a half:

Chao Mien: Sarn Saechao has worked in Thai, French, and Italian restaurants all over town. Now he's cooking a Sunday night pop-up at Naked Lunch in North Beach. His Mien (an ethnic group from the mountains of Laos) upbringing plays a role in the food. So does his patchwork résumé.

A favorite dish: the Mien pork rolls ($7), brittle cigars stuffed with pork, cellophane noodles and aromatics. Another: transparent tapioca dumplings ($5) filled with chicken and cilantro and then showered with fried peanuts, which come with a chile-fish sauce that tastes like a lightning strike.

Sarn Saechao's Mien egg rolls (Photo: Kay Lmnop)

Maneelap Srimongkoun: At this month-old, family-run Excelsior restaurant, the menu lists three pages of Thai dishes and one of Laotian, a reflection of the cooks' heritages (one was raised in Thailand, the other in Laos).

Fermented anchovies give Maneelap's Lao-style green papaya salad ($9) a briny top note, as if you're eating beside the open sea. The mild flavor of fermented pork sausage–called moo som ($8)–gets all glittery when you eat it with raw ginger, lemons and onions. The kao piak ($9) is chicken soup by another name, but enhanced by stretchy, chewy house-made rice noodles. Doctor your bowl with fish sauce and fresh chiles. 

A caveat: We take no responsibility for what happens if you order your food "Lao spicy."