The crispy rice salad at Laos in Town comes out punching. Sprung from a ball of rice, dry coconut and curry paste that gets fried and broken into clusters, the appetizer seizes your attention like a four-alarm fire. There’s heat from fresh ginger, funk from fermented pork, citrusy notes from cilantro, crunch from roasted peanuts and snap, crackle, pop from the fried rice.
Is that a tear in your companion’s eye? Does it feel like you just kissed a torch? Yes and yes, but the funny thing is, the pain gives way to exhilaration, and before you know it, you’re returning an empty bowl to the kitchen. You’ll also mentally clap for more Laotian fare, first made popular in the District by Thip Khao, whose owners gifted Tysons Galleria with the noodle shop Sen Khao last December and, more recently, the bar-focused Hanumanh in Shaw.
Laos in Town, situated in NoMa, is the handiwork of owner Nick Ongsangkoon, a partner in Soi 38, and chef Ben Tiatasin, formerly at Esaan in McLean. They’re both from Bangkok, they both came to the D.C. area to study as teenagers, and they share a longtime passion for the cooking of Thailand’s neighbor, the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia.
The restaurant, whose bar is open to the street on one side, giving it the feel of a night market, is easy to like even before you sit down. In preparation for its rollout in April, the owner and chef traveled to Laos more than half a dozen times. Ongsangkoon clearly checked a lot of luggage coming home. Everywhere you look, there’s evidence of his shopping sprees abroad. Suspended from the ceiling are woven fish baskets (some with a few bills from his first customers, for good luck), and near the semi-open kitchen hangs a collection of pots and other cookware. The entrance gathers the owner’s R&D memories — of wooden canoes and elephants, of three-wheeled taxis and sticky rice steamers — recaptured by an artist in white paint on a black wall. Water keeps its chill when it’s poured into the little metal cups Ongsangkoon found in a market in the capital city of Vientiane.
Owner and chef spent a lot of time exploring street food, hanging around the people who made it, and enjoying it on curbs, all the better for Tiatasin to learn the secrets behind the dishes she hoped to replicate in Washington. The trick to making charcoal-grilled chicken crackle? Ground rice powder dusted over the skin. One of the details separating Thai from Laotian cooking is the latter’s emphasis on fermentation, which diners can sniff out. Bring on da funk! There’s no mistaking the air for that of a French or Ethiopian restaurant.
If there’s a rival for my attention other than the crispy rice salad at the start of a meal, it’s the pork sausage, thick coins of ground meat stained yellow with fresh turmeric and pretty much a roll call of Laotian enhancers: lemongrass, lime leaves, cilantro and shallots. Laos in Town also serves my favorite cut of beef at the moment, hanger steak marinated in oyster sauce, coriander seeds, pepper and sugar, and sliced into strips and flash fried. The snack, called seen hang, is like beef jerky, only juicier and richer. (Up to you to dip the pieces in the accompanying Sriracha.) “Pairs well with a cold Laotian beer,” the menu reads. Or a Capital-Rita, I would add. The draft cocktail, coaxed from tequila, lime juice and chile syrup, goes down like an effervescent, hot-tempered margarita.
It’s not all fireworks here — the velvety red curry chicken is subtly sweet — but it helps if you like heat. A plate of Chinese broccoli leaves supporting four little rice noodle nests, each crowned with a pearly shrimp splashed with lime, black pepper and garlic, proves light and lovely, just the ticket for when you want to break away for home or office feeling refreshed rather than stuffed. Anticipate some stinging lips, though. There are chiles in the dressing as well.
If you’re fishing, go the grilled route. Branzino stuffed with lime leaves and lemongrass, and presented on a banana leaf, bests the whole fried rockfish, whose flesh bends when you want it to be crisp.
That crazy-good crispy rice salad is accessible to vegans, by the way. The kitchen simply omits the pork. In fact, vegans can graze from a menu with a dozen selections, including mushrooms in a lemongrass broth and wok-fried rice with cabbage, Chinese broccoli and fried tofu. The meatless list is the result of customer requests during Tiatasin’s stint as a manager at Thip Khao. Her one stipulation as chef is that the dishes have to be delicious sans meat or she won’t offer them. Having tried the crispy rice salad both ways, I have to say the one without pork is the more thrilling, if only because I feel more virtuous in its company.
“This is better than that place in the basement,” I overheard a stranger next to me tell her dining companion, in a clear reference to Little Serow in Dupont Circle. Laos in Town trumps the veteran northern Thai specialist as far as looks are concerned (birch walls and green banquettes let you pretend you’re dining alfresco), but the younger restaurant is no rival when it comes to, among other details, attention. At Laos in Town, I’ve watched as servers leisurely wipe down tables while lunchtime diners are trying to order or get the check, and I’ve experienced firsthand when basically an entire order comes to the table (too small) at once. Then again, I’ve had guides who want nothing more than to make you fall in like with Laotian food.
An easy way to do that is to ask for the best $9 dish of my recent acquaintance: crispy rice salad — hold the meat but not the heat.
Laos in Town (Good)
250 K St. NE. 202-864-6620. laosintown.com.
Open: Lunch and dinner daily. Prices: Appetizers $6 to $12, main courses $13 to $25. Sound check: 81 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: No steps at the door or in the dining room. Both restrooms are spacious enough for wheelchairs and include grab bars.