Friends in Lao Places – Fort Worth Weekly
You probably know more about Lao food than you think. The country of Laos lies between Vietnam and Thailand and its cuisine bears a number of influences from these countries (especially Thailand, where more Laotians live than in Laos). You may have eaten larb salad or sticky rice without realizing that these are Thai interpretations of Lao dishes. In fact, the Laotians consider sticky rice their national dish because the grains stick together, just as people stick together in the face of adversity. Zaap Kitchen, a regional restaurant chain with most of its locations in Dallas, recently planted the Thungsad Lāo in the TCU region, creating a welcome niche in our food scene.
The Fort Worth location is in the Westbend shopping district, and the biggest problem is the lack of outdoor seating. The main entrance opens onto a courtyard with only three tables, some of which are quite a distance from the restaurant. There is also a wooden bench if you want to keep your food on your lap or on the seat next to you. You could sit inside but the room inside is so small that I didn’t feel safe there even though I had all of my COVID vaccinations. The only time I was able to sit inside was when I left in the late afternoon after the crowd left at lunchtime.
Drunken noodles and sticky rice with mango are hot and sweet.
Photo by Kristian Lin.
The reason for my late afternoon was a bad indigestion the night before. A place that serves spicy food doesn’t sound like the most encouraging place to feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, the khao piak sen (Lao style chicken noodle soup) was exactly what I needed. From my trips to Southeast Asian cuisine, I expected the scents of lemongrass and ginger to waft from the bowl. I didn’t expect the tapioca flour noodles, which were as thick and chewy as Japanese udon and cooked in the broth, to thicken them. The soup also contained both shredded white and dark meat, and although I would have liked to have gone all dark, the different types of meat varied the texture of the dish. I even felt safe to drizzle a little of the accompanying chilli oil over it, so comforting was the soup.
I ordered my Lao style papaya salad, which differs from the Thai style in that it contains cherry tomatoes with juliennized slices of green papaya and carrot. The vegetables came with fermented crab and crab paste, the lime and coriander dressing accented the dish well, and the whole thing would have been really refreshing if I hadn’t ruined it by requesting a seasoning level that was one level too high, and that would have turned food into work. (You can adjust the heat of all the spicy dishes in the restaurant by requesting levels 1 through 5.) The pepper on mine was enough to distract me from the dancing garlic riblets that came with it. The ribs were cut into pieces, some of which were more bone than meat. Even so, the crispy fried garlic pieces on the pork were so delicious that I understood why it’s one of the favorites on the menu.
I drizzle my chicken noodle soup in Zaap Kitchen with some chili oil.
Photo by Kristian Lin.
I asked for beef as protein for my drunken noodles, and it came to me ground in a beautiful pebble, as they say. This is a bummer for anyone who likes thick, steak-like cuts of meat with pasta dishes. I liked it more as the tiny pieces of meat didn’t detract from the large noodle flaps that make this dish stand out because it’s supposedly a hangover cure. These pasta sheets are a big reason drunken pasta is so comforting.
The restaurant does not have a soda fountain. So if you want something other than ice water, you have to go to the place’s fridge and buy soda or a pre-made Thai iced tea or Lao iced coffee. The condensed milk in the latter drink helped tame the seasoning out of my papaya salad, and there was an odd but pleasant smoky note on top that made this drink a more interesting drink than a comparable-priced latte at Starbucks. I found the side of sticky rice a bit too good to clump up, even in its iteration as a coconut milk and mango dessert. Still, this dessert is a winner for a solid reason: the richness of coconut and the brightness of mango go hand in hand on a tropical beach.
Eating in the Zaap kitchen is an educational experience in a dark corner of the food world, but you should just go there because their things taste good.