You may have encountered larb in a Thai restaurant as an appetizer. Typically, it’s spicy ground chicken, in a lettuce wrap. At Pho Thai-Lao Kitchen in Maywood, you will encounter larb as it is eaten in its native territory, Laos, where it is the national dish, and in the neighboring Esan region of Northeast Thailand, where it is equally popular.
“Restaurants here present it as a lettuce wrap to make it easier for American people,” says owner Jirada Ingkavanich. “But it’s not an appetizer salad,” she says. “It’s a main course. We eat it for dinner.”
So should you.
At Pho Thai-Lao, larb is made from chopped scallion, cilantro, lime, galangal (Thai ginger) and hot chilis, mixed with your choice of ground chicken, pork, tofu, fish, conch or beef with tripe. It comes with sticky rice and lettuce leaves. Flatten a bit of sticky rice into a little pancake with your fingers, spoon on some larb, and away you go. Ingkavanich suggests nibbling lettuce between bites to cool the palate.
The restaurant was opened in 2008 by Samlaen Sysounthone, originally from the Esan region, and her husband, Soubanh Sysounthone, from Laos. Married for over 50 years, they do all the cooking.
The pho in Pho Thai-Lao refers not to the Vietnamese noodle soup, but to a kind of leaf that is a Buddhist symbol of good fortune and is pronounced “poe.” That said, there is a wonderful Esan version of pho (the noodle soup) on the menu, but it features aromas of galangal, lemongrass and tamarind instead of the star anise that dominates the Vietnamese version.
Dinner at Pho Thai-Lao can be relatively familiar or rather exotic, depending whether you order from the Esan Thai menu or the Lao menu. Even on the Thai side, you will notice some differences. The Esan influence is noticeable in the deep, spicy flavors of the house-made (never canned) curry pastes, and in the interesting variations of pad thai. These include woon sen, made with clear potato-starch noodles instead of traditional rice noodles, and green-papaya pad thai, made with shredded, unripe papaya in place of noodles.
Green papaya is a mainstay of Laotian cuisine. One of the most popular Lao dishes is a salad that plays its mild-radish crunch against a fiery dressing of lime, chili, garlic and fish sauce, with the option of adding little, crouton-like salt-preserved crabs.
Fermentation is another Lao signature, and fermented pork shows up in several forms on the Lao menu. Don’t miss the Esan spare ribs, marinated in the family’s secret brine mixture, then fermented for a few days before grilling. Juicy and garlicky, they are delicious. Consider bringing a few beers. Also try the Lao classic nam khao—steamed rice mixed with shatteringly crisp fried rice, with slices of fermented pork sausage adding a pleasant lactic-acid tang.
Most dishes are rated on a five-star hotness scale. Please note that these people are not messing around: a five is pretty much out of the question, a three will have you gasping and wiping your eyes. There is no dishonor at all in choosing a one.
For the adventurous (or those seeking attention on Instagram), crickets are served. This isn’t a metaphor. These are actual crickets, flown in frozen from a cricket farm in Thailand. Not battered, not minced, they are undisguisedly insects, cashew-sized and a bit crunchy after being stir-fried with Thai basil and vegetables. If their appearance triggers a mild panic reaction from the base of your brain stem, just breathe through it—the flavor is nutty, earthy, and very, very good.Click here to leave a comment
- Cuisine Type:Thai/Laotian
- Price Range:Moderate
- Price Details:Appetizers, soups, salads, $6.95–$14.95; entrées, $14.95–$35.95
- Ambience:Simple but comfortable
- Service:Familial, slow-paced
- Wine list:BYO