Pha Khao Lao was probably our favorite restaurant in Vientiane, and if it weren’t a wee bit pricey, we likely would have elected to eat here every night. Not only was the food wonderful, but the atmosphere was fantastic—tucked away in the a pretty little garden adorned with lanterns and lush greenery, you really felt you were dining somewhere very special. During the several meals we ate at Pha Khao Lao, we enjoyed:
Everything was phenomenal, with the exception of the sweet & sour tofu, which was merely average and not very memorable. Pretty much if you stick to anything off of the “Recommended/Specialties” Page at the front of the menu, you are guaranteed a winner. Dishes start around 40,000LAK (~$5US), so it’s certainly on the pricier side for Laos, but well worth it. If you are indecisive or don’t know where to start when it comes to Lao food, they also offer a set menu for 2 people at 160,000LAK (~$20US) that was very enticing and that we almost ordered each time we visited; the only thing that stopped us was the lack of the tamarind chili fish that was just SO GOOD we couldn’t abide missing it.
Info: Pha Khao Lao is located on the alley between Wat Ong Teu and Fa Ngum road
There is no shortage of budget restaurants aimed at western backpackers in Vientiane flogging food at $2-3US per dish, but one of the things that set Saengthip Larb Sam Neua 2 Restaurant apart from its brethren is that its incredibly extensive menu was limited to Thai and Lao dishes rather than adding in pizza, kebabs and all and sundry “junk foods” into the mix. I always approach exceedingly international menus with caution and prefer to focus on places that seem concerned with cooking a certain style of food well.
Not everything that we tried at Larb Sam Neua was a home run—I tried a local soup that falls into the school of flavorless broths I (and Lindsey Bluth) term “hot ham water”, and Tony ordered a chili pork dish that, while tasty, was also on the meager side—but the prices were low enough that we felt encouraged to keep trying until we hit upon some winners. They too offered a fried tamarind fish that was really more like a fried fish slathered in sweet Thai chili sauce, but no matter: it was delicious and that’s what is really important. We also tried two different larbs—a special “Vientiane-style” larb and a duck larb—that were each excellent (even if it was unclear how the Vientiane larb differed from the other larbs we had tried). Their som tam (papaya salad), was crisp and fresh, with an undertone of funkiness owing to the liberal seasoning from fermented fish sauce that is a hallmark of the Lao version of this dish. It added an earthy chewiness to the dish, and I found that it gave it an extra flavor layer that the Thai version (though still delicious!) lacks. We also ordered ginger-poached chicken one evening when we both were feeling mildly queasy and it was just the right combination of fiery and soothing.
Info: Saengthip Larb Sam Neu 2 is located at the corner of Thannon Setthathirat and Thanon Kieng Nyeun
Cheap Street Eats
Although there are plenty of dodgy street food options of the mystery grilled meat variety available around the main tourist streets of Vientiane, when we were looking for a truly cheap meal, we headed to this Thai food stand down on the riverside road, Fa Ngum. Located right in front of a convenience store, this stall whips up just a few different dishes all at 15,000LAK (~$2US). We did spicy seafood noodles one night and they were legitimately awesome, but our favorite came to be the Pad Thai, which was chewy but not gloopy and definitely on par with the best versions we tried in Thailand proper. The food coming out of this stall was fresh, hot, cheap and delicious… so even if it’s not quintessentially Lao, what more can you really ask for? (Also, as a bonus there are TWO Bubble Tea stalls right next door!)
Info: The Thai Food Stall sets up in front of a convenience store on Fa Ngum Road near the corner of Francois Ngin
Fantastic Foreign Food
Given the abundant western food choices on offer in Vientiane, we decided to take a break from the local food on a few notable occasions, and both were totally worth it. If you find yourself craving something other than sticky rice, I’d recommend you check the following places out.
Moules frites may not be the first food you think of when you think of Vientiane, but a visit to Chokdee Café will definitely change that. We wandered by and were intrigued by the proliferation of Tin Tin merch—upon closer inspection, we discovered this was a true-blue Belgian joint, complete with over 100 different imported beers and weekend mussel & fries specials featuring 20 different preparations! Once I got the notion of moules frites into my head, I couldn’t shake it so we decided to give them a try.
We started with a plate of mini burgers, which were not just adorable, but delicious too. Bonus points for each one coming with a REAL pickle! Then we split a pot of mussels cooked in cream, garlic, celery, and parsley. For about $10US, we got a kilo of mussels plus an order of fries and it was HEAVEN! Of course we also had to wash it all down with some fancy beer (a nice change of pace from the ubiquitous bottles of Beer Lao elsewhere), and thoroughly savored our bottles of Stassen pear cider and Bacchus raspberry ale. Our two drinks were about the same price as the mussels, but they were the perfect complements to the meal and worth the splurge.
Info: Chokdee is located on Fa Ngum between Thannon Manthatulat and Thannon Pang Kham
There are no shortages of burgers to be found in Asia, but finding a GOOD burger is an entirely different matter. We’ve found precious few places that have managed to do right by this American classic, but Ray’s Grille Burgers certainly made up for our months of deprivation. Run by an American, we knew we would eat well before we even set foot in the restaurant; two cooks were set up at a barbecue out front, grilling burgers and caramelizing some onions. The smell was out of this world and when we saw they offer up Philly Cheese Steaks, we almost caved and got one of those instead. But remembering our mission, I went with the blue cheese burger (because BLUE CHEESE!) and Tony went with a chorizo burger. Made with imported Aussie beef, these burgers are juicy and every mouthful was brimming with flavor. If you’ve spent some time in Asia and are looking for a REAL burger, this is a mandatory stop.
Info: Ray’s Grille is located at the intersection where Thannon Settathirat turns into Thannon Sihom across from the gas station.
One thing I find myself routinely craving is dumplings, so when I read that Vientiane has some of the most authentic Chinese food outside of China, I knew we had to go on a field trip and find out. Navigating the warren of alleys in search of Dongbei Dumpling Restaurant felt like one of those needle-in-a-haystack challenges they so love on The Amazing Race, but eventually our persistence (and Tony’s pattern recognition skills) paid off and we pulled up to the right restaurant. Hopping off the bike, we were greeted with a hearty “Ni Hao!” which triggered flashbacks to ordering stonewalls in Beijing made me momentarily worry. Thanks to some pictures on our phone and a few scraps of remembered Mandarin, we managed to successfully order 2 plates of fried dumplings and even 2 glasses of cold tea. It felt like such a triumph for the owner to not just understand our request but to be genuinely welcoming to us. As we scarfed down these incredible dumplings (just $2.50 a plate!), a group of ladies rolled out more dumplings at the next table over. When we were done, one of them patted her stomach while saying something unintelligible that we took to be a question as to whether they had been tasty. I would have thought that the fact we devoured food meant for twice the number of people in about 10 minutes would have made that clear, but nevertheless, an enthusiastic round of thumbs ups assured her we were very happy foodies.
Info: Check out the CNN article linked to above for directions on how to reach Vientiane’s “Little China” and then, if using your own transport, be prepared to get lost.
Without a set of wheels, Dongbei is a bit out of the way, so we sated a second dumpling craving over at Chinese Liaoning Dumpling Restaurant on Fa Ngum road. The lamb & chive and pork & cabbage dumplings were really good; even if they were not quite as expertly prepared as at Dongbei, they still scratched our dumpling itch. We also ordered a plate of grilled eggplant with minced pork that was unexpectedly massive but also very tasty.
Info: Chinese Liaoning Dumpling Restaurant is located on Fa Ngum Rd near Thannon Chao Anou
This is not a comprehensive rundown of the Vientiane dining scene by any means, and it doesn’t feature as many Lao joints as I would have liked (I really wanted to check out Amphone and Tamnak Laos, but Amphone closed for month-long renovations the day we arrived and Tamnak Laos was always closed as well whenever we thought to check it out) but it did provide enough variety and good eats to keep us happily stuffed for our week in the city. As no one else seems to spend this much time in Vientiane, I’d wager this is enough to keep most people busy, but if you’ve made it to Vientiane and have a favorite restaurant that we didn’t make it to that you think deserves a little bit of love, please share it with us down in the comments!