Make up for Lost Time
Allendale’s Vientian Cafe sparkles with the peppery tastes of Southeast Asia.
Photo by Lori Earnes
There are neighborhood restaurants that qualify as destinations, such as Wood Tavern, Pizzaiolo, or the Ramen Shop. Then there are lower-profile neighborhood restaurants that exist outside any dining “scene,” hidden in residential enclaves off the beaten track. Such is the fate, and the glory, of Vientian Cafe. Tucked into the Allendale neighborhood, which borders the Laurel and Fairfax districts in East Oakland, and several blocks away from the nearest major thoroughfares, MacArthur Boulevard and High Street, this mom-and-pop Lao/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant can’t count on foot traffic to build business. Food-centric social media networks do increase exposure for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, but word of mouth is more effective. At least it was for me, thanks to a random conversation in the men’s sauna at the Oakland Y. The talk turned to favorite restaurants. I mentioned Champa Garden, the Lao/Thai gem secreted a few blocks off Park Boulevard behind the old Parkway Theater. A young chef who lives in the Fairfax neighborhood touted Vientian Cafe, which somehow had escaped my radar for the 15 years of its existence. Learning that it serves something akin to the fried rice ball salad that Robin and I adore at Champa, as well as Lao sausage and drunken noodles, Robin and I made up for lost time with two visits in short order.
Once we found Allendale Avenue, we couldn’t miss Vientian Cafe at the corner of 38th Avenue, occupying a two-story house painted shades of vivid lime green. It was a hot evening, and we were ready for a cold beer. On our trips to Thailand, we rarely had a meal without a Singha, and Champa Garden had turned us on to Beer Lao. But Vientian Cafe serves no beer or wine.
The “mom” in Vientian’s pedigree was founder Chanhla Phannavong, who retired in 2014 and turned the restaurant over to her eldest daughter, Anna. On our visits, two servers, wearing red Vientian Cafe-branded T-shirts, seemed at times overworked in the two rooms that seat up to 24 each, but they never lost their composure or their smiles. And the kitchen was obviously in good hands. The eight dishes we sampled at two dinners were all delivered quickly, and the cooks’ mastery at balancing the pivotal spicy, salty, sour, and sweet flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine was palpable.
From the menu of nearly 100 items, we immediately zeroed in on the nam kao, a fried mixture of rice, ground pork, and coconut that you scoop into lettuce leaves and garnish with mint, cilantro, peanuts, and sauces provided in a caddy on the table. Done right, the savory and toasty crunchiness of the filling plays off the cool crispness of the lettuce, the aromatics of the herbs, and (our choice) the tart sweetness of a gooey plum sauce. Although not quite the same texture and flavor bomb as Champa Garden’s fried rice ball salad, and, in Robin’s estimation, compromised by the inclusion of tiny hamlike cubes of pork, Vientian’s nam kao was nonetheless a signature must-have starter.
Photo by Lori Eanes
Larb; jeow bong with Laotian sausage
So, we agreed, was the sai ooa, a Laotian pork sausage flavored with garlic, onion, chili, lemon leaves, and lemongrass. The sausage is baked and then, it seems, quickly fried at a high temperature just before serving, creating a deep brown crust that encases the softly textured filling.
Sai ooa was the one thing we ordered again at our second meal. Our waitress reinforced our decision when I asked about something on the Lao Specialties page—jeow bong, a chili paste that looked similar to the Thai classic nam prik pao. She explained that it is traditionally eaten with sticky rice and sausage. Bingo. The three elements of this popular snack didn’t arrive at our table all at once (random delivery seemed typical). The sausage came many minutes before the thick, dark paste (in a covered plastic container, handy for taking home the extra), and the sticky rice (in a plastic-wrap-lined woven basket). It was worth waiting to bring them all together. The jeow bong was powerful stuff, redolent with dried shrimp and fish sauce, with a bold chili kick. Its profoundly complex character unfolded with big bites of sticky rice, and its funk wonderfully complemented the savory essence of the sausage.
None of the other dishes we tried had quite the same wow factor, although Robin noticed that the chicken larb, the traditional ground or chopped meat salad, included tiny slices of offal (probably heart, liver, and gizzard) tossed in with the rice powder, green onion, and mint—an authentic touch rarely seen hereabouts—and thought something like, wow, I’m not gonna eat those mystery meat bits. Then there was the tam mak hoong, green papaya salad. We ordered it Thai style after our server explained that the Laotian version would be “much stronger”—in fish-sauce pungency, I presumed. Back when Robin and I took Thai cooking classes, we calculated our heat-tolerance at three or four on a scale of five. But after a few bites of the “medium spicy” salad, I was gasping, wow, that’s hot. As I chugged iced tea and water, I looked around for a fire extinguisher and emptied the paper napkin holder to mop my brow, my cheeks, and the back of my neck, and dab at my watery eyes. Still I couldn’t help but take another bite or two of the crisp slivers of under-ripe fruit spiked with peppers and lime juice, and tumbled with peanuts and dried shrimp.
If the chilies overpowered the papaya for me, the subtle juxtapositions of essential flavors were more evident in the phad kee mow, glistening drunken noodles stir-fried with shrimp, cabbage, broccoli, bell pepper, onion, garlic, vinegar, jalapeno peppers, and sweet basil; the gan khew wan, green curry, in which the curry spices, coconut milk, and basil worked in soothing harmony around the tofu, bell peppers, green beans, eggplant, and onion; and especially the kung phad ped, shrimp sautéed with bamboo shoots, onion, and basil in a spicy chili paste, a potentially run-of-the-mill combination that triggered surprising and pleasant sparkles on the tongue.
At both dinners, from the time we sat down through our contemplation of the typical desserts we never tried (mango and sweet sticky rice; fried bananas with ice cream or honey), a constant stream of patrons made their way past the carved wooden statue near the door to the back counter beneath the flat-screen TV to place or pick up to-go orders, confirming that Vientian Cafe is both a neighborhood favorite and a unique restaurant worthy of a crosstown trip.
Lao Thai Vietnamese. 3801 Allendale Ave., Oakland, 510-535-2218. Appetizers $3-$8.95, salads $8.50-$14.50, soups $6.95-$12.95, lunch plates $7.50-$9.95, noodles, curries, and grilled and stir-fried specials $8.50-$12.95, desserts $3.95-$4.50. Serves lunch and dinner daily, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m. VientianeCafe.com CC $-$$$