More than eight years ago, Café Du Laos, the city’s first Laotian restaurant, opened on South 11th Street. I had never tasted this Asian cuisine, but found it similar to Vietnamese in its delicacy and Thai, which always brings bold flavors.
Several months ago, the restaurant, rechristened as Ratchada, expanded its Thai dishes, although I found a bit of Laotian influence on the menu.
The dining room is filled with earthy carved mahogany, colorful Thai-Laotian artwork with a strong nod to the noble elephant. I slid onto a comfortable banquette and enjoyed the simple beauty of the table. White cloths and napkins were set off by black and gold table runners woven with elephants.
A petite, young woman walked about the room with the grace of a ballet dancer. She told us she was the owner, and answered all of our questions with a smile.
Thai flavors always excite my taste buds. Lemongrass, galangal — a blue ginger, hot chilies, kaffir lime leaves and basil form the flavor principle that gives this cuisine its unique taste.
The restaurant is still BYOB. I recommend a Gewurztraminer, which always marries well with spicy Asian fare, or a nice cold beer.
Edward and I began dinner with Tom Yum, a lemongrass-based broth with a choice of either chicken ($4.95) or shrimp ($6.95). Steam was rising from the deep bowls placed before us. The hot-and-sour broth imparted a distinct flavor enhanced by lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, basil, fresh button mushrooms, galangal and a touch of turmeric which gave the broth a rosy/orange color. My shrimp were perfectly cooked, retaining a bit of bite.
From the appetizers, we selected Koong Sarong ($7.95) and Sai Krog ($6.95). Both are authentic Thai and Laotian starters. The first one consisted of three large, marinated shrimp generously wrapped with thin, fried, crispy egg noodles and served with a sweet plum sauce. I picked up a shrimp with my fingers, dipped it into the sauce and took a crunchy bite. It always amazes me how fine Asian chefs can fry thin noodles so crisp and totally free of grease. I found the sauce a bit too sweet, but this is a matter of personal taste.
Our second appetizer was in direct contrast in flavors and texture, with the shrimp. You may be surprised to find that Laos is famous for its sausages. Four fat, slightly spicy pork sausages were fashioned with lemongrass, garlic, kaffir lime leaves and fragrant jasmine rice. They were chargrilled, emitting a slightly smoky flavor. I enjoyed how the chef was able to keep the natural casing a little crunchy. There are few things worse than a mushy sausage casing. A small mound of shredded cabbage and eye-appealing carrot rosette came with both appetizers.
If you are watching your calories but want to enjoy a tasty dish, order the whole steamed fish for two ($29.50). It takes abut 30 minutes to properly cook so be patient. There will be much reward when you take the first bite.
The fish of the day was striped bass. It was steamed in a light, tasty broth fragrant with lemongrass and can be cooked truly hot and spicy or on the more mild side.
The owner waltzed over to our table bearing a large fish-shaped metal platter set upon an oval, hot pot. The fish had to be at least three to four pounds, and was served head to tail. This never bothers me. Whole fish is best steamed with its bone and skin. If it had been served on a platter, we could have helped ourselves. But since there was a small fire on the hot pot, the fish was filleted for us.
The striped bass was so fresh, my first taste was like a hug from the sea. Black bass has a slightly sweet flavor that can be enhanced by any type of sauce. The broth was lovely with lemongrass and a bit of chili. Bite-sized bits of broccoli, rounds of thinly sliced carrots and shredded Napa cabbage added a bit of texture to the dish. And don’t forget to enjoy the skin. A bowl of rice came with our dinner.
Ratchada was doing a fine business, including takeout, on the night we dined. I want to return and sample more Laotian and authentic Thai dishes in an atmosphere where the staff truly make you feel welcome.
Three tips of the toque to Ratchada.
1117 S. 11th St.
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