If you know anything about us at all then you know that if there is one thing that is likely to make us like a place and stay put for a while, that thing is clearly food.
Now, Savannakhet with its population hovering around 120,000 people (seriously, that is the size of the SECOND LARGEST city in Laos!) may not have much going for it, but as it turns out, it’s not just a great place to do a whole lot of nothing… it’s actually a great place to do a whole lot of nothing but eat.
Obviously we have no problem with this. Museums and parks and culture are nice, but I would trade them all for a really good plate of food. And Savannakhet’s got the latter in spades.
This was a pleasant surprise for us. To put it gently, we had not heard very many positive things about the food here in Laos before arriving, and much of what we had heard made us think we might be in for another Cambodia where diluted dishes from neighboring Vietnam and Thailand were passed off as “local” food. While I would certainly allow that the dishes we sampled in Savannakhet certainly felt inspired by both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine (not altogether unsurprising given the city’s close proximity to both countries), Tony & I both felt that many of the local dishes definitely seemed to have their own flavor profiles and idiosyncrasies. Nothing we tried felt overly foreign or unfamiliar, but it certainly didn’t feel like lesser versions of other dishes we knew and loved more elsewhere. After every meal we would stretch out lazily in our chairs with twin Cheshire grins across our faces and suggest that perhaps we should stick around in Savannakhet for “just one more day” because there were a few more things we wanted to try to eat before moving on.
For a sleepy city, Savannakhet actually has a formidable number of restaurants and we certainly didn’t eat at all of them. However, the ones we did dine at were sufficiently good that should any other travelers find their way there, we’d say they are worthy of your time, money, and stomach space as well. To help you in your pursuit of good eats, here’s our scattershot guide of where and what to eat in Savannakhet.
Café Chai Dee
A groovy little restaurant festooned with twinkling fairy lights marks Café Chai Dee as a definite tourist magnet and not exactly a local watering hole. But the ambiance is nice, they have a 1:1 book exchange (!), the prices are very reasonable given the setting and food, and it’s consistently rated one of the best places to eat in Savannakhet, so we decided to check it out or first evening in town. One of the restaurant’s original founders is Japanese, so Japanese and Thai dishes feature prominently on the menu; if I had any complaints with Chai Dee, it would simply be that there didn’t seem to be any Laotian dishes on offer. That said, we ordered a pork tonkatsu bowl and a Massaman chicken curry, and both were done extremely well so clearly whoever is in the kitchen is cooking what they know and love and it shows in the quality of the food. We enjoyed our meals, our server was incredibly nice and helpful (teaching us a handful of Lao phrases when asked), and we left feeling happy.
Another restaurant that is quite similar to Café Chai Dee in scope, Lin’s Café also clearly caters to foreigners and the menu also has a decidedly international scope to it (and once again, no local dishes). However, there were a few local drinks on offer, and we were able to try a tea drink that is unique to Savannakhet, tea lieng. It had a sour citrus flavor (tempered by sugar) as well as smoky undernotes, which made for a complex yet refreshing drink.
Foodwise, we ordered a bacon club sandwich and a green chicken curry. Both were good, though the club wound up being more like a BLT, not that we would complain about that. The French fries were great and real bacon was used! The green curry was good, although the kaffir lime might have slightly overpowered the other flavors of the dish.
Random Soup Stall on Ratsavongseuk Rd (just south of the Central Market)
One of the annoying things about Savannakhet is that there are no addresses, and most of the things we researched only gave the street without any cross streets so we never knew exactly where anything was. So, we spent a lot of time simply wandering around stopping whenever something looked or smelled good. This soup stall (next door to a massage parlor) checked both of those boxes.
The two ladies running this setup had two big cauldrons bubbling away that we peeked inside and ordered from using the classic “point and grunt” method. On our first visit we ordered a bowl of what was essentially beef pho and a bowl of some kind of coconut curry broth with plenty of noodles, chunks of meltingly tender pork shank, and cubes of blood. The pho was decent, but the coconut soup was spectacular. We liked it so much that we came back the next day only to discover the menu varies and it wasn’t on offer. So we came back the day after that and thankfully it was available and we ordered two bowls and all was right in the world. This soup was a bit like the baba laksa that we enjoyed so much in Malaysia, but with Vietnamese contents and mix-ins (fresh herbs!). So, so good, and just 15,000LAK (~$2US) a bowl.
Random Stall at SavanXay Market
Just west of the bus station (which is about 2 km north of the center of town) is SavanXay market, Savannakhet’s largest market. Our months in Asia have taught us that where there is a market, there is sure to be food, so one morning we walked there to have a poke around. Our hypothesis proved true and we found row after row of stalls serving up various soups and grilled meats. We eventually settled on a vendor who had some delicious looking crispy pork and some fried rice in her wok. Through the power of pointing and plenty of nodding (when in doubt, I tend to just say yes and nod and hope everything turns out ok… it normally does), we managed to convey that we wanted her to mix all of this together. She may have thought this was sacrilege, but she did it anyway and it was darn good too. Best of all, even though we should have asked the price before she started cooking, when we asked how much we owed at the end of the meal, she only charged us 10,000LAK (~$1.25US) per plate, which looked to be about what she was charging everyone, so this seemed fair.
Sala Beer Restaurant (along the riverfront)
We actually stumbled into Sala Beer the first time because we thought it might be the “Mekong Viewing Platform” that was indicated on our map, when in fact it was actually a restaurant. The day was so hot that we decided to just hang out there alongside the river and drink a few Beer Lao. At 10,000 LAK ($1.25US) for a 640mL bottle, this is one of the more reasonable places in town to drink, which might explain why a table with two locals next to us had 4 bottles. Also, it was only 10:30 am. Hurrah for day drinking!
Anyway, we came for the cheap beer and riverside views, but returned for the adorable puppy and the tasty & reasonably priced food. We tried a spicy seafood noodle dish that had just the right level of burn to be pleasantly painful as well as beef lok lak, mostly because it had French fries and we were feeling peckish. I know beef lok lak is actually Vietnamese food masquerading as Cambodian food and not Laotian, but it was really tasty—the beef was tender and shockingly had a decent fat content so that it actually tasted like beef and not like desiccated shoe leather.
Savan Lao Dearm Restaurant (on the river)
Touting itself as Savannakhet’s biggest floating restaurant, I’m pretty sure this is the city’s ONLY floating restaurant. Be that as it may, it’s also really, really good.
The menu is huge and despite the haphazard attempt at photos and English, a bit incomprehensible. The staff looked at us like deer in the headlights when we asked for recommendations/if they spoke English, so we decided to be adventurous and pointed at a faded picture of what looked to be a fried fish covered with papaya salad, and then upped the ante by picking a traditional spicy laab salad with… red ant eggs. We could have picked a variety of different proteins, but figured when in Laos, try the ants.
This was not a mistake. The salad was incredibly flavorful and the ant eggs really just looked like grains of rice (though we did totally see some fully formed ant bodies in the mix, but we’ve been in Asia so long, whether accidental or purposeful, ants in food no longer phases us). What was a mistake, however, was that we had ordered the salad medium spicy. This was, without a doubt, the hottest thing Tony & I have attempted to eat during this entire trip, to the point that we felt like our faces were melting off and after about three bites it became way too painful to continue eating. Maybe we should have ordered sticky rice or fruit shakes to help dull the heat, but in all likelihood, we should have just said NOT SPICY. Laotians do not dick around with the spice, I can tell you that. If not for the tongue-blistering chilies, I would say this was the best dish we had in Savannakhet as the combination of fresh herbs were so bright and flavorful.
Instead, I’ll have to give the gold medal to the deep fried fish dish. Not really a consolation prize, because it was legitimately awesome. I have no idea what kind of fish it was, but it had been artfully prepared, butchered and fried in such a way that the cubes of crispy flesh and skin easily fell away from the nefarious little pin-bones; the meat was most and had a mild, pleasant flavor. The papaya salad on top was light and crisp and the slightly tart sauce (perhaps tamarind?) that was drizzled over everything was lick-the-plate good.
If you only have time for one meal in Savannakhet, that’s really a shame, but I’d say you should probably plan to have it here. It was definitely a bit on the pricy side (our two dishes + 1 beer came to 105,000 LAK, about $13US) for Laos, but the food was deliriously good. Also, you’re clearly paying a bit extra for the experience of dining right out on the Mekong, which is a lovely setting (or would have been if not for the biblical proportions of flying insects that swarmed as soon as the sun set and the lights came on. That was a real mood killer).
(To find Savan Lao Derm, walk along the riverside road until you see an arch with twinkling lights draped on it. This will take you down a path to the river and the restaurant. It literally is the only restaurant on the water, at least near the central part of town, so you really shouldn’t have a hard time finding it.)
All in all, as far as a first taste of Laos, Savannakhet certainly whet our appetite and has made us excited to continue to explore the variations in the cuisine and discover new dishes throughout the country. But, lesson learned—unless we want our mouths to bleed, we’ll be asking for things with little or no chili from here on out!
Tell Us: Have you ever been to Laos? What dishes should we make sure we try while we’re here? Have chilies ever almost melted your face off?