Luang Prabang's Best Dishes
The city’s best dishes keep getting better as new restaurants whip up rocking renditions of the classics. From buffalo larb to dried-bael duck, Rachna Sachasinh savors the most creative and mouth-watering bites.
Published on Sep 6, 2016
LAO CUISINE is often lumped in with Thai or Vietnamese, but this landlocked country boasts its own distinct culinary creds. At its core, Lao food is foraged in the forest—it’s rustic, earthy, bitter, astringent, racy. Game and fowl give it heft; oddities like insects and bats keep it exotic. Luang Prabang’s royal chefs elevated Lao cuisine, refining techniques and ingredients, while French colonials sparked intriguing fusion. New restaurants and revived menus are pushing the boundaries further, but in spite of the finesse and tinkering, Lao food remains homespun, best enjoyed with good friends and an icy Beerlao.
THE DISH: PING DOOK MOO
THE RESTAURANT: MANDA DE LAOS
Cooked sous vide and lightly braised, succulent strips of pork rib slide off the bone and swim in a peppery slaw of kaffir lime, scallions and roasted rice. Though Manda de Laos has been opened for less than a year, they’ve already mastered this dish; the snappy tomato coulis spiked with galangal, lemongrass and a drop of honey rounds this bold rendition of a Lao classic. mandadelaos.com; dish LAK88,000.
Ping dook moo, Manda de Laos
THE DISH: BLACK ANT EGGS IN COCONUT SOUP
THE RESTAURANT: BLUE LAGOON
Wrangling a bug or two is a must for gastronomes looking for authentic Lao bites. Chef Somsack Sengta’s daring insect fusion charms intrepid and meek epicureans alike, and his bisque is a perfect gateway dish for the critter-curious. Toasted for texture and crunch, buttery black ant eggs skim the superbly aromatic soup. The tamarind’s sweet tanginess lingers pleasantly, while the deep-fried ant egg bouquets are surprisingly toothsome. bluelagoon-cafe.com; dish LAK70,000.
Black ant eggs in coconut soup, Blue Lagoon
THE DISH: MAGRET DE CANARD ROTI AU MMAK TOUM
THE RESTAURANT: L’ElEFANT RESTAURANT
Dried bael fruit, a type of quince called mak tum in Lao, is the showstopper in this local twist on canard à l’orange. Staring with ping pet, the traditional barbecue duck, the dish substitutes citrus with bael’s balsamic tartness. Simmered in chicken broth and a dash of Lao-Lao, a homespun whiskey, bael’s lively tang and floral aromatics punctuate the zesty jus. Served with sautéed baby greens and gratin of potatoes, all culled from the restaurant’s organic gardens. elephant-restau.com; dish LAK160,000.
Magreat de canard roti au mak toum, L'Elefant Restaurant
THE DISH: LAO CEVICHE
THE RESTAUARNT: TANGOR
Shredded galangal, sawtooth coriander and lime push the Lao ceviche into tropical territory. Asian basil’s anise-and-licorice profile supplies a racy kick, making it nearly impossible to put down your fork. A nod to koi pa, a raw seafood salad cooked in lime juice, this ceviche upstages he original. letangor.com; dish LAK80,000.
Lao ceviche, at Tangor
THE DISH: BUFFALO TASTING PLATTER
THE RESTAURANT: GOVERNOR’S GRILL
Buffalo brings its robust, gamey gusto to this multicultural tasting platter, a top pick at the newly opened eatery. The hearty buffalo bourguignonne, medium-rare steak and skewered kebabs are superbly prepared, although the buffalo larb steals the show. In this delicious dish, seared buffalo meat is pounded and folded into a piquant blend of lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, scallions, coriander and a dash of pepper. Khao khua, or coarsely ground roasted sticky rice, adds a nutty flavor. fb.com/sofitelluangprabang; platter US$35.
The buffalo tasting platter, Governor's Grill
THE DISH: LUANG PRABANG SET
THE RESTAURANT: TAMARIND
Don’t skip town without sampling these regional specialties. Nibble khai paen—deep-fried riverweed—with jeow bong, a jammy, spicy relish that takes days to prepare (secret ingredient: buffalo skin). Sai oua (pork sausages) are left to sour for a few days before grilling and serving with sticky rice. Luang Prabang dishes its own take on larb with sa mak pi, a medley of finely chopped banana flowers and forest herbs that disarms with an umami, salty, earthy profile. Originating in local Hmong villages, or lam gai is a thick chicken stew made with chunks of the bitter root sa kan, gourds, eggplant, black mushroom, lemongrass and coriander. Sa kan’s astringent, peppery menthol flavor falls squarely in the realm of “acquired taste,” but one that the folks at Tamarind may just cajole you into acquiring. tamarindlaos.com; set LAK70,000.
The Luang Prabang set, Tamarind