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Vientiane Kitchen Restaurant in Bangkok

Michael Babcock, Friday, February 14th, 2014

Vientiane Kitchen is a popular Laotian restaurant on Sukhumvit Soi 36 in Bangkok. Its popularity is well-deserved. It is the “go-to” restaurant for the farewell feasts for Kasma’s small-group-trips to Thailand: we go for the food and for the entertainment.

Thai Dancers

Thai Dancers

We have often been disappointed by restaurants that the popular English guidebooks recommend – often the food disappoints. Vientiane Kitchen is (usually) one of the exceptions: the food is quite good, most of the time. In addition to the food, they have a lively show every night consisting of a northeastern Thai band with a very talented lead singer. In addition to the northeastern music, with the occasional American or Japanese song, there are also Thai dancers, and a woman singer as well. They’ve been quite good for the past 4 years.

(Click images to see larger version.)

The restaurant is popular with tourists, both western and Japanese, and can get quite crowded. Also, when the entertainment is on, do not expect to have intimate, quiet conversations – it can get very raucous and noisy. Still, it’s good fun if you’re in the right mood.

The Food

We’ve mostly had good luck with the food – we have a number of favorite dishes. The caveat here is that the quality can vary somewhat (different cooks?). Mostly the food is very good; on occasion, we’ve found it a bit off – still acceptable, though.  They do a number of dishes really, really well. Here’s another caveat: I’ve only gone with Kasma, who can order in Thai and impress upon them that we want the same food that the staff would eat – real Thai food. I don’t know if the experience would be different for westerners who can’t speak Thai.

These dishes were all photographed at the final feast for various of Kasma’s small-group tours to Thailand. Typically, she would order 6 or 7 dishes at a time, so she wouldn’t order all of these at one meal.

Fish Dish

Miang Pla

Grilled Pork

Grilled Pork

These are a couple dishes that Kasma often orders to get us started. Above left is Miang Pla – Tidbits with Fish Wrapped in a Leaf. There are a large number of miang – dishes with tidbits – in Thai cuisine; undoubtedly Miang Kam (Tasty Leaf-wrapped Tidbits) is the best known. Miang Pla is sort of like Miang Kam with the addition of fried fish. A wild pepper leaf (bai cha plu) is the leaf of choice; you take a bit of the fish, a little bit of each of the other ingredients, add a dab of sauce and pop the whole thing into your mouth for an explosion of flavors.

To the above right is Grilled Pork with a delicious, fiery dipping sauce. Both of them do a very good job of getting the appetite going.

Fried Pork Leg

Fried Pork Leg

Sour Fish

Sour Fish

Above are two of my very favorite dishes. I could very happily make an entire meal of either of these dishes. To the upper left is Fried Pork Leg – Ka Moo Tod; the pork leg, with skin on, is stewed with spices until tender, then smoked and then crispy fried so that the fat caramelizes. It’s served with a dipping sauce and with pickled ginger. So good.

To the above right is a definite northeastern specialty – Pla Som (Sour Fish). To make this, fish is mixed with garlic, rice and salt and then left to ferment for a few days until nicely sour. It’s then deep-fried and served with crispy-fried garlic. It’s a very tasty dish and must be fried so: they usually do a good job at Vientiane Kitchen. (Check out Kasma’s blog: In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som).)

Eggplant Salad

Eggplant Salad

Green Papaya Salad

Green Papaya Salad

Kasma always orders the Eggplant Salad (Yum Makeua Yao) shown above left. The eggplant is fried (much like tempura) as a base for the salad – it’s an interesting and delicious variation on the more standard version

To the right is the best-known of the northeastern salads – Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam); it’s hard NOT to order Som Tam at a northeastern restaurant. When I was traveling with Kasma in Isaan (northeastern Thailand), I learned not to order som tam made spicy: in Isan they have a much hotter spice scale than I’m used to and their standard “less-spicy” som tam was still incendiary enough for me!

Thai Soup

Hot-and-Sour Rib Soup

Vegetable Dish

Stir-fried Morning Glory

Above left is a spicy hot Hot-and-Sour Soup made with pork ribs. Very tasty. To the right we see “Red-Flamed” Morning Glory (Pak Boong Fai Daeng), one of the most popular Thai vegetable dishes.

Fried Chicken

Fried Chicken

Rice Salad

Rice Salad

Here are another two good dishes. To the above left is Fried Chicken (Gai Tod) and to the left is a northeastern salad – Crispy Rice and Sour Sausage Salad (Yum Naem Kao Tod).

Entertainment

Thai Musician

Thai musician

Thai Singer

Thai Singer

We do enjoy the entertainment at Vientiane Kitchen, which starts at 7:30 p.m. and is usually over around 10:00 p.m.: they put on a good show. For the last several years there’s been a very talented musician (shown above left playing a xylophone-like Thai instrument) who is also the lead singer of the house band; he’s been backed by a number of other musicians with various instruments, including a guitar-like instrument with 4 strings, probably indigenous to the northeast, and also a bamboo flute that resembles circular Pan pipes. In addition to the traditional northeastern music, they’ll branch out into western and Japanese songs at the audience’s request. There’s also a woman singer, shown above right between two of the dancers.

Thai Dancers

Thai Dancers

Two Dancers

Two Thai Dancers

Here are two pictures of the dancers. In the course of an evening they’ll do several dances, including the bamboo pole dance pictured at the very top of the page. Some of the entertainment is participatory – audience members are invited up on the stage to dance along.


See also:

Location

Vientiane Kitchen
8 Soi Sukhumvit 36, Sukhumvit Rd.,
Khlong Toei Nuea, Watthana,
Bangkok 10110
Phone: 02 258 6171
Vientiane Kitchen Map
Vientiane Kitchen Facebook Page


Written by Michael Babcock, February 2014

 

In Search of the Best Sour Fish (Pla Som)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Pla som, or sour fish, is one of my very favorite foods from the northeastern Isan region, which is also known for its sour sausages. It’s made in a similar way as the Isan sour sausages, using fermented rice as the souring agent. I’m partial to fish and a perfectly fermented and crispy-fried sour fish is so delicious it’s hard to stop eating it! The problem is: perfection is hard to find, even in its home territory.

Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

Ready-to-eat sour fcod

My first encounter with pla som was some fifteen years ago in the then small riverside town of Nakhon Phanom in the northeastern corner of Isan. It was at a small rice shop near the hotel I spent the night. Hungry and looking for a good place for breakfast, I walked down one of the streets and noticed a busy rice shop crowded with customers – a good sign! Among the assortment of ready-made dishes in front of the shop was a yummy-looking fried fish topped with crispy fried garlic, fried dried chillies, sliced shallots and cut Thai chillies. I soon discovered it wasn’t any ordinary fried fish. It had a very unusual and delicious sour flavor definitely not from lime juice, tamarind, vinegar or any other sour condiment. That introduction to pla som was truly memorable and I fell deeply in love with this Isan food.

(Click images to see larger version.)

In those days, Isan food hadn’t yet become popular in the main heartland of the country’s central region. It was impossible to find it in any eatery or restaurant in the capital, even in the few so-called Isan restaurants just opening in the city. But memories of that first encounter remained vivid in my mind and on my tongue. I could only dream of another trip to Isan to savor the delicacy.

So-so Fried Sour Fish

Sour fish at Si Saket

Fast forward half a dozen years. Michael and I took a trip to Isan with our friend and adopted brother Sun, who drives for my Thailand tours. I was showing Michael around to the places I’d been and we were exploring new places as possibilities for organizing a future tour. I hadn’t offered an Isan trip for years as traveling in the vast Isan region, Thailand’s largest, during the last two decades of the last century could be tedious and standard tourist accommodations lacking in many of the fascinating areas worth visiting. With Isan now a popular destination among domestic Thai tourists and Isan food becoming an “in” cuisine nationwide, it was a perfect opportunity to check out the new infrastructure, as well as the lively markets and local eateries I’d been reading about in Thai travel magazines.

Sour Fish in Surin

Sour fish dish in Surin

We had just arrived in Nong Khai on the Mekong River. It was late in the day and after checking into a family-run guest house near the river, we went for a walk along the alley by the waterfront, hoping to find a good restaurant with views of the river for dinner. My eye caught a signboard with the words pla som and immediately I insisted that we have dinner there.

I ordered the pla som while Michael and Sun chose a couple of other dishes. Soon, both of them understood why I was so excited about eating there. The fish was very quickly gone before the other dishes received our attention. The next evening, after a full day of exploration, Sun was the one to adamantly insist that we return to the same place for dinner and, this time, forget about other dishes and just order three plates of pla som, one for the each of us!

Sour Fish in Ubon

Sour fish in Ubon market

For the rest of that trip, as we journeyed along the Mekong east- and southward to the border province of Ubon and then cut westward to Surin and Buriram before heading back to Bangkok, we kept an eye out for pla som but, unfortunately, did not find any place with as good a pla som as we had in Nong Khai. Some were actually rather disappointing. Most of the pla som we saw were uncooked, sold in open tubs in the fresh marketplaces and made with whole fish, as it’s traditionally done, particularly small silver barbs (pla tapian) that do have a lot of small bones. The pla som we had in Nong Khai was made with chunks of a large fish with plenty of moist meat and very little bones.

Kamnan Jun Sour Fish

Sour fish in bulk at Don Wai

Michael and I love to visit open-air fresh markets in Thailand and Sun often drives us to marketplaces far and near. We soon begin to notice raw pla som being sold in some of the larger gourmet fresh markets in or near Bangkok, like Aw Taw Kaw (Or Tor Kor) and Don Wai, either already packaged in plastic bags or sold bulk in big piles. The pla som made by Kamnan Jun sold in Don Wai market is particularly good. It’s made with a fish called pla nuanchan in large mostly filleted chunks with skin still on. The skin is important as it adds a good texture to the fish when it is crispy-fried.

The first time I saw pla som at Don Wai, I bought two large bags and fried all the pieces up the next morning for breakfast. Sun, whose home is in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, planned to breakfast with us before making his long drive home. He was so delighted to have so many pieces of pla som to feast on. The fish was crispier and even more delicious than he remembered having in Nong Khai. He was convinced that I must have a secret way of frying the fish that enhanced the crispiness and flavor. He devoured with great pleasure as much as he could but there were so many pieces we couldn’t possibly finish the two big plates. So he decided he would wait till afternoon to begin his long drive, so that he could have lunch and finish off the rest!

Sour Fish at Don Wai

Don Wai sour fish vendor

Sour Fish, Ready to Cook

Sour fish at Don Wai

Sour Fish Dish

Vientiane Kitchen's fried sour fish

Pla som has become much better known among Thais all over the country as Isan food continues to soar in popularity the past decade. As migrant workers from Isan find their way around the country, I’m seeing raw, ready-for-cooking pla som in markets far and wide, even in the southern region. A number of Isan restaurants in Bangkok now have it on their menus but so far nothing near as good as the best pla som I’ve had in Isan or that I’ve fried myself from fish bought at Don Wai and Aw Taw Kaw. Vientiane Kitchen on Sukhumvit 36 serves an acceptable one after the restaurant remodeled recently and put in a new menu (and perhaps new cooks, too), but it lacks the crispiness that has become a trademark of delicious fried pla som.

I can even find ready-to-cook pla som in my local Cambodian market in Oakland (see my blog on Sontepheap Market), in packages in the freezer imported from Thailand and labeled in Thai as pla som Mae Jinda. The ingredients are shown in English though, listing fish, garlic, rice and salt. To preserve the fish better for its long journey here, it is made saltier than what’s available in Bangkok’s markets and needs to be eaten with plenty of rice. Delicious though it is!

Frozen Sour Fish

"Mae Jinda" sour fish at Sontepheap

Mae Jinda Sour fish

Sour fish out of package

Tilapia for Sour Fish

Very fresh tilapia for making sour fish

I’ve also taken to making my own pla som and teach it in one of my advanced classes. (See Menus for Advanced Set F.) Definitely a fish with skin still on makes the best pla som. I’ve tried making it with red snapper, catfish, basa (swai) and tilapia. The best result so far is with very fresh tilapia that I buy live from the tanks in Asian fish markets, that I then fillet to remove only the center skeleton, head and tail, but leaving the skin on. In the Bay Area it takes about a week to sour the fish. Rubbed with a coating of tapioca flour before frying, it delivers a most satisfying combination of crispiness and natural sour flavor to rival the best I’ve had in Isan’s restaurants.

Making Sour Fish

Preparing the tilapia

Sour Fish, Ready to Fry

Week-old soured tilapia

Sour Fish Dish

Sour fish at Bao Pradit, Mukdahan

My most recent trip to Isan was in December 2009 with a group of twelve on a special northeastern Thailand tour. (On Picasa, see Kasma’s Northeastern Trip Photos, Part 2.) Whenever and wherever I saw pla som on a menu, I would order it. Several in my group loved it, but like me, they soon discovered that quality and taste could vary substantially. By far the best we had was at a truly native Isan restaurant in Mukdahan, called Bao Pradit. It’s south of town along the river, serving really hardcore Isan food made with local ingredients not found in other regions. With all the wonderful choices and fiery hot range of flavor combinations, Sun asked that I order for him his own plate of pla som and that’s the only thing he ate that night with a heavenly grin on his face. I would have to say it really was the best of the best pla som I’d ever had.

This fall, I’m offering another special 21-day trip to Isan and I’m already dreaming about a fabulous dinner in Mukdahan!”

More Ready-to-eat Sour Fish

More ready-to-eat sour fish

Sour Fish, To Go

Sour fish, to go

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, July 2011.