Tom Sietsema on Bangkok Golden: Thai beyond the buffet, Laotian off the menu
"Are you here for the buffet?"
That's always the first question out of the mouths of servers at Bangkok Golden Thai Restaurant, and I can understand why. In all of my visits to the tiny dining room in the Seven Corners Shopping Center, I've never seen anyone order off the menu. That puzzles me, because the buffet, a steamy beige collection of food on display in the back of the place, does not present itself as a serious ambassador for Thai cooking. At $8.95 a head at lunch ($12.95 at dinner), it's gently priced, but also run-of-the mill with pad Thai, spring rolls, drunken noodles and crispy chicken. Yawn.
Armed with a promising tip from a reader about a secret menu, I dismiss the buffet and ask my server, "Do you serve Laotian food?"
The question elicits a smile and a vigorous nod from Phonesavanh "Pon" Luangrath, which makes me feel as if I've uttered some magic code. There is no written menu, she tells me, but both of the cooks at Bangkok Golden Thai are Laotian (as is she) and prepared to honor requests for their native food. I leave it to Luangrath to select a couple of special dishes for my friends and me, with the proviso that the food be prepared exactly as she and the cooks would eat it. As a backup, and to be fair to the written menu, I tack on a few Thai dishes to the order.
Minutes later, I'm breaking open a curry puff, an empanada as routed through Thailand and mellow with curried potatoes beneath its flaky cover. Close behind comes a plate of springy little fried shrimp cakes, greaseless and hinting of lemon grass in their seasoning. Their cucumber dip is more sweet than sour, but the seafood snack is so good, it doesn't need any enhancement. Slices of duck, wispy in a light batter, are listed as a house signature, and each hot-crisp-green (with basil and green pepper) bite explains why. "Spicy" seafood salad isn't a major hair-curler, but it does deliver a nice shock of lime and lemon grass, and the shrimp and scored squid are both tender and abundant.
Bangkok Golden Thai, it turns out, does pretty well with its Thai food.
But it does even better with what's rarer on the scene. If you've never had the food of Laos and you want to know how it differs from the country with which it shares a border in Southeast Asia, try the green papaya salad. Done the Lao way, the shredded fruit is mixed with tomatoes and garlic and doused in a sauce whipped up from lime juice, anchovy sauce and both shrimp and black crab paste. The result is murky and volcanic, torching the tongue, then the throat, with each bite. Your head might itch, your nose might run, your brow might bead with sweat. Hiccups can be another side effect. I loved it.
The fish salad (goi pah) is a scream, too. The kitchen uses tilapia, which it marinates in gingerlike galangal and kaffir lime leaves, among other sharpeners, and serves in slices on a bed of lettuce sprinkled with toasted ground rice. A fresh red chili sits on top. Proceed with caution (or not).
Thai food can be fiery, but Laotian food is typically more so, and less sweet. The latter also is served with pearly short-grained sticky rice, from a small woven steamer, rather than jasmine rice. Steaming and grilling are preferred to frying, and soup often shows up with the meal, which skips distinct courses in favor of everything landing on the table at the same time. One dish to try if it's offered: the juicy Lao-style skewered chicken, yellow with turmeric and tingling with ginger and lime.
I've never seen more than two servers in the mango-colored dining room; you might wait a few minutes for your beer or your bill, especially at peak hours, as the small staff juggles answering the phone, clearing tables and delivering dishes. But the food comes out at a decent pace, and whoever is attending you is invariably gracious. Luangrath, my waitress on two occasions, went so far as to demonstrate how to eat Laotian style, taking a bit of that sticky rice in her (clean) hands, shaping it into a little ball and using it as a scoop to transfer food from plate to lips. Ethiopians aren't the only people to eat their utensils.
I returned to the restaurant a few times to make more of a dent in its lengthy menu, and I can report that the ground chicken salad known as larb gai pulses with mint and cilantro as well as lime, and that green curry with sliced beef and soft Asian eggplant is packed to please a meat eater but not necessarily a heat seeker. Pork belly with Chinese broccoli, on the other hand, is too much chewy meat. Creamy fried bananas freckled with sesame seeds make a good conclusion. If there's a flaw that needs to be addressed, it's too much sweetener in some Thai dishes.
Until recently, the four-year-old Bangkok Golden Thai didn't promote its Laotian options for the same reason so many Mexican restaurants run by Salvadorans don't offer dishes that reflect the owners' roots: The cooking style isn't as familiar, Luangrath says.