If you like Thai food, chances are you're really going to like the food from Laos. There are lots of similarities: coconut milk, fish sauce, ginger and lemongrass.
However, there are also a few differences, as food reporter Steve Dolinsky found out at Chicago's only Laotian restaurant.
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 Sabai-dee's Kevin Wong.
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 a different flavor. The Thai version, they don't use that, and the Thai's more sweet, and the Laos on the salty side," said Wong.
Another Laotian specialty is homemade sausage. Lemongrass and shallots lend the ground pork some bite, while bouillon powder gives it mouth feel. Hand-mixed, they add fresh scallions, then feed it through a tube to form thick, giant links. Rather than fry them, as Thai people 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 bean sprouts, just to get the different texture," Wong said.
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-sized," Wong said. "You need to try it."
And if you have a hard time deciding what to order from the menu, Sabai-dee also has a quick, self-serve buffet.
5359 N. Broadway