Just a stone’s throw from the mysterious and monolithic That Dam in downtown Vientiane Capital sits Kualao Restaurant, one of the finest Lao restaurants in the country.
A casual visitor to Vientiane Capital might be forgiven for assuming that the local cuisine consists entirely of common street foods, simply grilled meats, noodles, and the odd bit of larb, or papaya salad. However, nothing could be further from the truth—Kualao, located in a tastefully restored historic French colonial building, offers a truly extensive menu of Lao delicacies.
The menu has a number of highlights, including the outstanding or lam, which is one of northern Lao cuisine’s most famous and iconic dishes. This thick stew is cooked from a sticky rice base and served with meat (although a vegetarian version is available), sliced long beans, and wood ear mushrooms. Flavoring the stew are some rare and exotic ingredients, such as chewy bits of buffalo skin and aromatic peppertree bark. While the flavor is subtly spiced and the dish is pleasantly hearty, the variously chewy, crunchy, and soft ingredients are also a textural treat.
Kualao also has an admirable commitment to producing its own homemade ingredients. The delectable Luang Prabang-style sausages are grilled such that the skins have that perfect combination of chewiness and crispiness, and they’re served with a savory jaew paste for dipping. What’s more, the sausages are made in-house, as is the traditional padaek fermented fish sauce used for flavoring a great many of the dishes.
Indeed, there is an entire section of the menu devoted to seasonally available delicacies. Of course, the seasonality means that much of that menu may be unavailable at any given time—presently, the only offering which is ‘in season’ is khai mot, or ant eggs. Diners can choose between an ant egg soup and a koi style dish, which is a kind of Lao salad featuring meat, usually raw, with sliced shallots and other flavorful bits, all tossed in a thin, acidic sauce, not unlike a ceviche. The koi khai mot is a must-have, with the delicious and mild ant eggs popping in one’s mouth, releasing a slightly tangy and nutty flavor. The acidic sauce dressing the dish is also nicely balanced between sour, salty, and savory, prominently featuring the restaurant’s homemade padaek. The popularity of ant eggs as a seasonal delicacy and the restaurant’s innovative approach to their cuisine recently caught the attention of The Economist, which published a hugely popular web article on the topic, featuring an interview with the restaurant’s owner.
Mushroom connoisseurs may wish to make a trip to Kualao, especially during the rainy season, when matsutake mushrooms are in season in Xieng Khouang, as the menu also features an entire section of preparations of wild-gathered matsutake, known as hed wai in Lao. However, for those of us not fortunate enough in our timing, there is also a house special matsutake-infused lao kao whiskey available year-round. While the drink is reputed to have some health benefits, it is also quite powerful, yet the flavor is subtle and excellent, with a very dry and earthy aroma that recalls the superb flavor of the matsutake. For those who shy away from hard liquor, the restaurant also offers a full wine list.
Guests with a sweet tooth won’t be let down, either, due to the selection of homemade traditional Lao dessert items. The house special dessert is a take on nam wan bua loi, a common market snack that typically features an assortment of balls of rice starch, nuts, and legumes in a cool, sweetened coconut milk soup. The twist here is the addition of fresh fruit which, paired with the less-than-usual sweetness of the coconut milk, makes for a refreshing and healthy dessert.
Kualao’s extensive menu offers a wide variety of excellent homemade Lao food, while the beautifully restored historic environs of the building and the tastefully coiffed wait staff add an upscale flair. Lastly, on weekdays from 7:00 pm, a house band, which features veteran musicians from the National University of Laos, plays relaxing and melodious traditional Lao music. Additionally, dancers clad in a variety of ethnic garb periodically appear to accompany the musicians, performing the graceful and entrancing movements of traditional Lao dance.
Kualao Restaurant is located at 134 Rue Samsenthai, and opens daily for lunch from 11:00 until 2:00, and again for dinner from 6:00 until 10:00. While walk-ins are certainly welcome, reservations are recommended, particularly during the peak dinner hours when the music and dance performance is ongoing. Private dining rooms are also available.