Where & What to Eat in Savannakhet

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.

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.

Lin’s Café

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)

Soup stall in Savannakhet
The soup stall is to the right (north) of the foot massage sign

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.

Random Stall at SavanXay Market

Fried rice
Fried rice

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)

Savan Lao Dearm at night

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?

Popular in: Food

Popular in: Laos

34 comments Leave a comment

  1. Damn looks like I lucked out! incredible looking dishes and I must try these ants as I never had a spicy dish while I was in Laos apart from some of the laap

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 6:23 am
    1. jimmy dau author

      You know, we haven’t had anything as spicy as that salad ANYWHERE, but even in the rest of Laos the food has not been anywhere near as spicy. I think that perhaps because Savannakhet is not a huge tourist destination the food there might be more suited to local palates than wussy westerners. I hope you get to try the ants—apart from melting our faces off, they were really delish!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:31 am
  2. So much food! I’m not at all adventurous with food, but clearly, for foodies, this is an awesome place to be. I’m just here for the puppy 😉

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 7:53 am
    1. Lisa from Lulu's Big Adventure author

      “I’m just here for the puppy.” Totally valid choice! You can never go wrong with puppies!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:33 am
  3. Not sure I would want to do the red ant salad, but everything else looked mouth wateringly delicious!

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 9:29 am
    1. Taylor author

      Even though I was the one who suggested the ant salad, I was still a little nervous. But honestly, if no one told you, you wouldn’t even know that there were ants in there. Plus, as I said, in Asia, you are always winding up with bugs in your food… ants are really the most innocuous!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:36 am
  4. The ant salad looks delicious. And that freaks me out.

    Apr. 2 2014 @ 8:21 pm
    1. NZ Muse author

      It was delicious! At least until the burning started…

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:38 am
  5. Steph, You are convincing me. S looks like a fine place to stay especially with all the delicious sounding food available. And as an aside, this was the second article I read today with puppy hugs…must be a theme. Who can resist a good pet cuddle while on the road?

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 2:21 am
    1. Corinne author

      Puppy hugs is really not a bad theme to one’s travels! Just realized that save for our current destination, we have managed to cuddle a puppy in every one of our stops in Laos thus far! WIN!

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:41 am
  6. OK, I’m vegetarian and even those meat dishes are making my mouth water… 😀

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 5:38 am
    1. Karyn @ Not Done Travelling author

      Mission accomplished! 😉

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:42 am
  7. OMG those dishes are making me soooo hungry right now!! I’d love to go there! I had never heard of Savannakhet, but doing nothing but eating is right up my alley 🙂

    Apr. 3 2014 @ 6:29 am
    1. Tim | UrbanDuniya author

      Yup, even if all a destination has is good food, that is a good enough reason for us to visit! Anything else is just a bonus.

      Apr. 4 2014 @ 4:43 am
  8. Time and again it seems I plug into your food posts when I am absolutely starved! (The good news is we’ve found some super awesome places in Cusco and so I think we’ll be hightailing it out the door as soon as Ewan finishes dolling up…).

    I don’t recall having super crazy heated dishes in Laos. I think the hottest we’d experienced was on ‘Mother’s Day’ in Bangkok at a local market…us foreigners were called in to try a free dish and we obliged and asked for the ‘spicy’ option. We made the day for a lot of people in the vicinity…the heat was so intense we were coughing, sputtering and downing as much liquid as possible. I think I saw white – the heat was so strong!

    Apr. 4 2014 @ 5:23 pm
    1. Emily author

      I want to read this Cusco food posts! Please make the demands of my stomach the priority when planning your upcoming blog posts… 😉

      You know, ever since we left Savannakhet, we have not experienced anything insanely spicy either. I am thinking that maybe because it doesn’t get as many tourists, the spice might be a bit more authentic there than in other parts of the country. To be on the safe side, we’ve been ordering everything “just a very little spicy” and it has really not been spicy at all.

      Apr. 5 2014 @ 11:22 pm
  9. I should really stop looking at food posts when we are running out of food here in the jungle! Like you I would rather eat a delicious meal then bust a gut to the must see local attraction.

    I’ve only heard bad things about the food in Laos, so it’s good to hear there are some tasty treats out there. This all looks delicious and well worth the wanderings.

    Apr. 5 2014 @ 9:51 am
    1. Rob author

      We had not heard anything good about the food in Laos before we arrived, but you know us, we’re always determined to prove others wrong! I wouldn’t say that this is our favorite SEA food destination, but we have definitely had more good meals than bad and the local food we’ve tried has generally been very solid. I’m glad we didn’t rule it out right from the start but gave it a chance to wow us instead!

      Apr. 5 2014 @ 11:23 pm
  10. Stop making me miss Asian food so much! 😉

    Apr. 5 2014 @ 8:47 pm
    1. TammyOnTheMove author

      So, you’re saying you want me to start writing “What NOT to eat in Laos” then? 🙂

      Apr. 5 2014 @ 11:24 pm
  11. The delicious looking food is one thing but how on earth did you manage to leave this place without that gorgeous puppy peeking out of the top of your backpack?!

    Apr. 6 2014 @ 7:23 am
    1. Maddie author

      Adorable puppy seemed to be well-loved by the owner and staff. And we have our own two lovable mutts at home, so that made leaving this one behind a teeny bit easier.

      Apr. 6 2014 @ 8:07 pm
  12. Didn’t realize that Lao food can be that spicy! Now I know to order food not spicy, so they will come at least medium (like what we do at authentic Thai places in NY:) Keith wants to know how that Beer Lao is.

    Apr. 6 2014 @ 7:58 pm
    1. Marisol@TravelingSolemates author

      I think this is an instance of finding a really good local/authentic place, because none of the other restaurants we have visited (which see a lot more tourists) have been spicy at all. True, we now ask for a “little spicy” just to be safe, but that seems to be “no spice at all”. So I think in places like Luang Prabang and Vientiane, if they ask you if you want it spicy, you can say yes.

      Consensus seems to be that Beer Laos is the best beer in SEA! (Although I did like Negro in the Philippines, but you don’t see that anywhere else (and was even hard to find in the Philippines).)

      Apr. 6 2014 @ 8:10 pm
  13. Awesome looking food and tons of great places to eat. I just have to say….that puppy is SO CUTE! Awww 🙂 I’d go there every day just to see the puppy!

    Apr. 6 2014 @ 10:34 pm
    1. Lauren author

      That puppy really was cute. The food was definitely enough of a reason to return, but the added incentive of puppy snuggling certainly did not hurt!

      Apr. 10 2014 @ 4:16 am
  14. Food is one of my passions. I always want to try everything wherever I go and those dishes look like something I’d go for. Yummy article!

    Apr. 7 2014 @ 8:23 pm
    1. Suki F author

      You sound like our kind of traveler—food is definitely our biggest motivation to travel as well! Glad you enjoyed the article. 🙂

      Apr. 10 2014 @ 4:18 am
  15. When travelling, you will meet and eat new delicious foods! 😀

    Apr. 12 2014 @ 8:45 pm
    1. ben author

      Yes, we love meeting (but especially eating!) new foods!

      Apr. 14 2014 @ 8:14 pm
  16. We actually really enjoyed the food in Laos. Try to do a Laotian barbecue, if you can find one. We went to a restaurant in Luang Prabang that specializes in it and it was a fun experience. Try the local sausages, too. Those were a highlight. We enjoyed the laab, though sadly ours didn’t come with ant eggs. Other dishes to try: Orlam and oh pa daek (spelling for both varies).

    Apr. 14 2014 @ 2:49 pm
    1. Heather author

      We have been generally really pleased with the food in Laos too! True, we have been gravitating towards restaurants more than street food here so it’s a little bit pricier than we anticipated, but not so bad really. We’ve definitely been making a concerted effort to try different things as well so that we can write the ultimate report on Laos food! Thanks for the suggestions!

      Apr. 14 2014 @ 8:18 pm
  17. Hmm day drinking I’m up for that! All these food dishes and restaurants look and sound wonderful. I could quite happily enjoy Laos with green curries and all the fried rice.

    Apr. 17 2014 @ 10:58 am
    1. The Guy author

      Yup, a little day drinking goes a long way to making everything else ok! 🙂 And I’ve no doubt that some of the “Lao favorites” that we sampled were secretly really Thai, but at the end of the day, good is good, and that’s what matters!

      Apr. 17 2014 @ 8:34 pm

We want to hear from you!

Required fields are marked with red.

Anything you share with us will not be published, traded, sold or otherwise used outside this site in any way, ever. We will not spam you.

We moderate comments, so if you haven't posted with us before and your comment doesn't show up right away, we will get to it, no need to post it twice. Thanks for your patience!

Name is required. You can only use alphanumeric characters (a-z, A-Z).