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At Laos in Town, a Thai Chef Honors a Neighboring Cuisine

Eater logo Eater 6/18/2019 Missy Frederick
a plate of food on a table © R. Lopez/Eater DC

From crispy quail to whole grilled fish, a tour through the restaurant’s star dishes

Restaurant partners Nick Ongsangkoon and executive chef Ben Tiatasin may have grown up in Thailand, but neither has been able to stop thinking about the dishes they grew up eating from the neighboring country of Laos. When she moved to D.C. about six years ago, Tiatasin would work to recreate the dishes she picked up at home over the course of her travels. Finding ingredients could be a struggle, but the chef found satisfaction in the search for pungent, spicy flavors predominant in Lao cooking.

“I love it so much,” she said.

a dining room table:  Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Laos in Town
A mural inside Laos in Town

With Laos in Town, which opened in NoMa in late April, Tiatasin and Ongsangkoon are hoping to create a destination for a cuisine that doesn’t have as strong a foothold as many others in the D.C. area. Lao food can largely be found in the area thanks to the efforts of chefs Seng Luangrath and Bobby Pradachith, the mother-and-son duo who run Falls Church eatery Padaek, D.C. hot spot Thip Khao, new Shaw bar Hanumanh, and Tysons food stall Sen Khao. Despite the popularity of those places, Lao food is hardly as pervasive as many other international cuisines in the region.

Tiatasin notes there are some similarities between Thai and Lao fare — the countries are are joined by the Mekong River. Her focus with Laos in Town was to present traditional dishes from Laos with her own individual spins. “We want to show how the food fuels the culture and [vice versa],” adds Ongsangkoon, a partner at Soi 38, a popular Thai street food restaurant in Foggy Bottom.

After research trips to Laos, the pair brought back everything from hanging baskets to dishware to rice containers. All of which are found inside a restaurant that was bustling during the newly added lunch service on a recent random weekday.

Here are the dishes that both believe have defined the restaurant in its first months of operation:

a plate of food on a table: Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Laos in Town
Herbal pork sausage at Laos in Town

Herbal Pork Sausage

Tiatasin makes the sausage herself, combining ground pork with shallots, garlic, lemongrass, and most importantly, fresh turmeric. She says it’s a dish that causes diners to say, “Wow,” especially if they’ve had different takes on it before. They’ll ask her what she puts in it to make it unusual (they’re probably noticing the turmeric). It’s served with a hot chile sauce with garlic and shallot on the side, as well as some peanuts and fresh ginger (which is traditional).

a close up of food: Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Laos in Town
Quail at Laos in Town
a close up of a plate of food: Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Laos in Town
Mieng Kana at Laos in Town

Crispy Quail

This fried poultry is arguably the restaurant’s most popular dish — Ongsangkoon says they sell about 25 orders each night. “Every time I walk around the room, at least one or two have the quail,” he said. Tiatasin marinates the birds in herbs, garlic, and oyster sauce, and hangs them to dry for a short time, a process that helps the fat render out and keeps the skin crispy. She places the bird on a bed of shaved lemongrass leaf, a part of the plant cooks often throw away. It’s safe to eat, and can serve as a palate cleanser.

Mieng Kana

In Laos, fish is often served inside a lettuce wrap with vermicelli noodles. Tiatasin thought making a version with grilled shrimp and kana, or greens commonly known as Chinese broccoli, was a way to offer a similar experience as an appetizer. It’s “finger food,” as she puts it, “so fresh, so good.” The shrimp is seasoned with garlic and pepper, and diners are encouraged to add a dollop of the spicy green basil sauce, the most popular of the restaurant’s dipping sauces. “It’s a little sweet, and not too spicy,” she says.

a plate of food on a table: Laos in Town “Signature Salad” © R. Lopez/Eater DC Laos in Town “Signature Salad”
Laos in Town “Signature Salad”

Laos in Town Signature Salad

Many customers are already familiar with green papaya salads from other Lao and Thai restaurants. The philosophy behind the dish is basically: “Anything that tastes good in the kitchen, let’s put it in the salad,” Ongsangkoon says. That translates to everything from cracklins to pork loaf to green papaya to pickles to bean sprouts. A main ingredient in this dish is padaek (also the name of Falls Church’s Lao restaurant), a Lao fermented fish sauce with a strong smell. “It suprises and challenges me to serve it in Washington because it’s really strong and funky,” Tiatasin says. Laos in Town sells around 22 servings of this dish, one of three smashed salads on the menu, per night.

a close up of a plate of food: Mok Pla at Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Mok Pla at Laos in Town
Mok Pla at Laos in Town

Mok Pla

This steamed basa fish (a species of catfish) gets wrapped in banana leaf to steam. The fish is mixed with curry paste and herbs such as lemongrass, shallot, and dill, then flavored with fish sauce. Both restaurant owners list it as their favorite dish. “It’s light but it’s still filling,” Tiatasin says. Sometimes people ask for the chef to tame the spice level of the dish. She’s willing to accommodate that request for most dishes, but she insists that the heat here keeps the fish curry traditional. The recommended technique is to eat it by hand with a bit of sticky rice — Ongsangkoon says many customers already know this, and others often ask him for advice. He always tells them, “You’re doing great!”

a bowl of food on a plate on a table: Whole Fish at Laos in Town © R. Lopez/Eater DC Whole Fish at Laos in Town
Whole Fish at Laos in Town

Grilled Whole Fish

Laos in Town has three different whole fish dishes on the menu (including a popular crispy version with tamarind), but the grilled branzino is Tiatasin’s favorite. The whole fish is stuffed with lemongrass, basil, and makrut lime leaf, a technique she learned in Laos. This approach allows diners to taste the herbs from the inside out as opposed to whole fish preparations that concentrate flavors on the fish’s skin. “It’s a special meal for local people, but I ate it all the time [when I was there],” she says with a laugh. At Laos in Town, it’s served with three dipping sauces — the basil sauce, a spicy and sweet tamarind peanut sauce, and a potent hot sauce with garlic, chile, lime, and fish sauce. It’s served with leaves and noodles for wrapping, and more than 20 orders sell each night.

The menu at Laos in Town is basically the same as it was when it opened. Now that the partners have some time under their belt, they want to experiment more. Tiatasin says she will add such dishes as crispy pig ears and grilled chicken hearts in the upcoming weeks. She hopes to slightly shift the menu from month to month. The main source of inspiration for those dishes? Requests from friends eager to eat dishes they’ve struggled to find in D.C. — until now.

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