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Southeastern Asian flavors on Far North Side

January 16, 2008 11:19:12 AM PST
Only one restaurant in town focuses on the food from Laos, and ABC7's Hungry Hound has tried everything on the menu. If you like Thai food, chances are you're going to really like the food from Laos. There are plenty of similarities-- mainly coconut milk, fish sauce, young ginger and lemongrass, but there are also a few differences. As I found out on a recent trip through a tiny Laotian menu, they make the trip to uptown worthwhile.

It's easy to find Southeast Asian dishes from Vietnam and Thailand while roaming around Uptown, but you've got to look a little harder to find the city's only Laotian option, Sabai-dee, which simply means "hello."

"Our food is less sweet and it has more spice, salty; to me it's more flavorful," said Kevin Wong, Sabai-Dee.

Since Wong is Chinese, he offers a small assortment of native items from a long, heated display case, but it's the Laotian dishes that are worth the trip. A Nam salad begins with rice, flavored with shallots, lemongrass and a beaten egg; the rice is formed into balls, which are then deep-fried. Those crispy-crunchy rice balls are then broken up, along with fresh herbs and vegetables, plus chopped nuts, to form the eventual salad. Green papaya salads are commonly found in Northeastern Thailand, but in Laos, it's a little different.

"We have Laotian, and we use a crab paste, so it's different flavor. The Thai version they don't use that; and the Thai's more sweet and the Laos on the salty side."

Another Laotian specialty is homemade sausage. Lemongrass and shallots lend the ground pork some bite, while bouillon powder gives it mouthfeel. Hand-mixed, they add fresh scallions, then feed it through a tube to form thick, giant links. Rather than fry them - as the Thais often do - they carefully grill them, serving them with peanuts and fresh cilantro.

A Lao curry noodle dish is another standout. Fish sauce and coconut milk give it the trademark Southeast Asian accent, but in the bowl, it begins with a crunchy base of shredded cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts. Soft, boiled vermicelli noodles go on top, plus some fresh herbs such as mint, adding a wonderful aroma. Finally, the coconut milk-flavored curry, which fills the bowl with luxurious richness.

"We put cabbage and the carrot, or sometime you see beansprout. Just to get the different texture."

There are a few goodies set out on the counter for quick snacking, such as Lao beef jerky or tiny fish cakes. If you like coconut, try the dessert containing a liquid blend of both coconut and tapioca - it's irresistible. Another peculiar fruit is lamut - which is blended to make beguiling smoothies that taste like nothing else.

"Sapota or lamut, it's brownish, kiwi size..it's hard to...you need to try it."

There are also some decent Chinese dishes on the hot steam table at Sabai-Dee, but honestly, if you're going to make the trip, you might as well try the Lao food.

Sabai-Dee

5359 N. Broadway

773-506-0880


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