If I were to have eaten nam khao the right way, I would have plucked a single rib of romaine from the plate and stuffed it with a spoonful or two of crispy coconut rice and pork, adding perhaps a few sprigs of cilantro and a sliver of chile pepper to the leafy wrap. But I didn't do any of that with my nam khao at Sabydee Thai and Lao Cuisine in Mount Pleasant. I was way too hungry to bother with construction projects. I just grabbed a fork and dug right in.
The problem was, once I started shoveling, I couldn't stop. I was a preteen who had just discovered Minecraft.
Nam khao is a gift from Laos, and while it's tempting to say the salad is all about texture — the crunch, crackle and craaaack of fried coconut-and-rice balls with their garnish of roasted peanuts — that would be misleading. Nam khao's value extends well beyond the enigmatic pleasures of tooth-rattling resistance. Once those textures disappear, the waves of flavor rush in: the acid, the sweetness, the heat, the decaying beauty of shrimp paste. This is a last-wish-of-the-dying dish.
Sabydee took over the space formerly occupied by Zabver, the tiny takeout owned by a Thai couple who embraced a whole wide world of Asian flavors, even the ones jury-rigged in 20th-century Chinese-American shops. (God, I still daydream about the General Tso's chicken at Zabver.) Sabydee's debut in May has helped ease the loss of a neighborhood joint that died before its time.
Daovone Southammavong is the chef and owner behind Sabydee. A native of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, Southammavong toiled for 13 years in the kitchen at Sawatdee, the stylish Thai outpost in Arlington. The Thai dishes on her expansive menu are not just concessions to Washingtonians unfamiliar with Lao cooking. They are part of her culinary DNA. She has earned the right to claim them.
But the Thai dishes are not the reason — or not the main reason — to subject yourself to Sabydee's first-floor dining room, a space so small that no conversation is private. Nor are the Thai dishes the reason Southammavong made the jump into the restaurant ownership, a move with more liabilities than Al Franken. Southammavong, like Thip Khao chef Seng Luangrath before her, just wanted to give locals a taste of Lao cuisine, which remains a rare find in Washington, even in these days of gastronomic thrill seekers.
If Thip Khao is the pinnacle of Lao dining in Washington — a bustling space with craft cocktails and a devoted following of off-hour chefs who pine for the supernova burn of Luangrath's food — then Sabydee is the opposite. It's a tiny storefront fighting for respect and willing to accommodate even the most sensitive palates because, as first-time restaurateurs inevitably learn, many diners don't give a flip about your authentic cuisine, especially if it causes discomfort.
So does Sabydee pull its punches with some dishes? Let me put it this way: Nearly five years ago, I attended Luangrath's guest dinner at Toki Underground, where she prepared a tasting menu of Lao dishes, including her own take on nam khao. Some of those preparations have been permanently seared into memory, and I mean seared like a branding iron on a mindless steer. Several times during the meal, I thought I might spontaneously self-combust into a pile of ashes.
Nothing that I had over the course of five visits to Sabydee could touch the spice level of the dishes that night at Toki, which is not to say that Southammavong's cooking can't compare to Luangrath's. I'm not even saying that Southammavong can't bring the heat, should you request it. She can. She definitely can. All I'm saying is that "Lao spicy" assumes a different personality, a more malleable one, when you're operating a restaurant in America, with a bottom line to watch. Even Thip Khao's dishes can be tame compared to that night at Toki, where there was nothing to lose.
With that said, some dishes at Sabydee, like the nam khao, inspire total devotion. The ka nom jeep is an appetizer of steamed chicken-shrimp-and-water-chestnut dumplings, with wonton wrappers so delicate they almost melt in your mouth. The larb gai salad runs sour, fishy and just hot enough that you won't feel the need to sprint to the nearest 7-Eleven for a jug of milk. The green curry chicken is a slow burn, all fragrance and silk, until you realize that the tickle in the back of your throat is not an imminent cold.
And those are just the Thai plates. The greatest pleasures on the 55-item menu — yes, 55, virtually everything prepped, cooked and plated by Southammavong herself — are almost all Lao dishes. The Lao sausage are oblong slices of ground pork mixed with lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves, the perfume intoxicating. Siin haeng are strips of sun-dried beef spiked with ginger and lemon grass, like Lao jerky but the kind you can slam like potato chips. The khaopoon, a rice vermicelli soup with red curry paste and coconut milk, coats a variety of vegetables in a broth that's more complex than the initial slurp suggests.
Aside from the laminated menu, Southammavong also has a photo album, with pink flamingos and palm trees on the cover, which contains page after page of Lao and Thai specials, each with an accompanying glamour shot. You and your friends may flip through the volume, like a yearbook to a high school you never attended, longing for dishes you never knew existed, such as the excellent tilapia with rice, green onions and cilantro. You won't care that the spice level may be dialed down or that you forget to order a side of sticky rice. You'll just think there's more to Lao cuisine than you first realized, and that's a great place to start.
3211 Mount Pleasant NW, 202-986-2093.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m. daily.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights, with a .4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $6 to $8 for appetizers and soup; $10 to $20 for entrees and specials.