Although Laos has borrowed the occasional ingredient and cooking technique from different influences over the centuries, the national cuisine is absolutely unique — fresh and healthy yet rich in a component often lacking in other fresh and healthy cuisines: deep, pungent, bright, bitter, sour, spicy, tongue-tingling flavor. Unlike its neighbors Thailand, China, and Vietnam, Laos showcases the clean, distinct flavors of its ingredients — raw greens and fresh herbs like galangal, dill, lime, and lemongrass primarily — instead of muddling them with sweeteners or other distractions. Garlic and chili peppers and fermented anchovy paste are employed to accent and heighten tastes and textures without overburdening the palate.
Several East Bay eateries serve Laotian food — Vientian Cafe, Black and Silver, and Champa Garden in Oakland; Lao-Thai Kitchen in Albany; Dara Thai Lao Cuisine in Berkeley — but the Green Papaya Deli is exemplary. (The name is a misnomer; this is an honest-to-God restaurant with no display cases or pre-prepared noshes whatsoever.) Open since 2007, this family-run enterprise (mom in the kitchen, daughters up front) prepares and serves authentic home-style Laotian cooking to order in huge, inexpensive portions. It’s located at the quiet Lake Merritt end of International Boulevard a few blocks north of Little Saigon proper and even farther afield from the pushcarts and taco trucks of Fruitvale. The storefront is unprepossessing, but the tiny interior has a certain charm that trumps the flatscreen TV, linoleum floors, and fluorescent lighting. White napery, colorful flowers, rustic musical instruments, elephant-themed artwork, and a palpably friendly and accommodating vibe create an oasis of old-country civility.
The primary component of Laotian cuisine is sticky rice, and by “sticky” we mean gummy enough to spackle a retaining wall. At Green Papaya it’s served traditionally in a bamboo steamer basket, and the idea is to break off a chunk with your fingers, form it into a ball, make an indentation in the center, and use it as a scoop to hoist the other food into your mouth. (Laotian cooking is usually on the dry side because otherwise it’s too messy to eat with your fingers.) We opted to break clumps of the rice into our food with chopsticks instead, but the classic method would’ve been more satisfying on at least a couple of levels.
Not that the dishes suffered. Som moo, raw pork fermented until “cooked” and formed into sausage, had a rich, lush texture and a yummy kimchi-sour flavor worthy of Adesso’s finest salumi. Another sausage, sai oaw, was crackly-skinned and fat-ribboned as well as dry and chewy, but dry and chewy in a way that distilled the ingredients — ground pork, onion, garlic, lemongrass, chili pepper — down to their essential flavors. And papaya salad, a Lao/Thai classic, gets a grand production here, combining the succulent fruit with shrimp, squid, long beans, cucumber, cabbage, peanuts, peppers, garlic, tomato, noodles, and a brisk sour-lime dressing; the different elements balanced against one another beautifully.
The national dish of Laos is larb, a salad of raw or cooked meat or seafood marinated in lime, chilies, and herbs. The duck larb was delectable, the fresh bite of mint, cilantro, lemongrass, and galangal accenting a hearty serving of minced fowl touched with lime, pepper, scallion, and the toasted ground rice that’s such an integral part of Laotian cooking. (Larb is especially tasty wrapped inside one of the crisp lettuce leaves that are brought to your table on a platter with sliced cucumbers — a cooling antidote to all that spiciness.) The curry-coconut chicken noodle soup was more Thai than Laotian — Lao cooking isn’t big on curry or coconut — but the bitter lime peel, earthy galangal, and incendiary chili peppers gave the coconut milk a nice snarky edge, and the bowl brimmed with big chunks of moist chicken, crunchy bean sprouts, and fragrant scallion. Moke pa, steamed fish wrapped in a banana leaf, was fun in the same anticipatory way any mysterious soon-to-be-unwrapped bundle is, and in this case the gift inside (chopped catfish jazzed with pepper, lemongrass, ginger, and God-knows-what) was esoteric indeed. The first taste smacks you upside the head, but by the third or fourth bite you’re too busy luxuriating in culinary combinations you’ve never before encountered to not embrace all of its pungent, intense, funky-fermented flavors.
Green Papaya’s two dozen Lao dishes are complemented with an equal number of Thai specialties that point to the differences between the two cuisines. The red-curry soup was a hearty, spicy bowl of prawns, squid, al dente bell pepper, sliced zucchini, and sprigs of fresh basil in a coconut milk broth that was sweeter and richer than the Lao chicken noodle soup’s and lacked its sour, bracing bite as well. Pad kee mao got its name (“drunkard’s noodles”) from the dish’s starchy, spicy comfort-food/hangover-prevention qualities: thick slabs of stir-fried rice noodles glistening with oil, fish sauce, and soy sauce and ribboned with chunks of beef, sweet pepper, cabbage, scallion, and tomato. While perfectly tasty, it had none of the punchy, distinct flavors of a classic Laotian dish.
Despite all the fresh produce, Green Papaya doesn’t offer an overwhelming selection of vegetarian options. A basic papaya salad is available without the squid and shrimp, and there are long-bean and cucumber salads as well, but all three are prepared with fish sauce. The Thai side of the menu is more promising, offering a pad Thai and a pad kee mao prepared with tofu instead of meat, as well as a red curry with tofu, zucchini, and coconut milk plus pad pag luam mit (pan-fried cabbage with broccoli, mushrooms, peppers, and bean sprouts).
Alcohol isn’t served, but nobody seems to mind if you corkage yourself a six pack from Security Liquors next door (beer is wonderful with Laotian food). Or make do with something from the cooler in the corner: coconut juice, creamy soy milk spiked with cane sugar, or Gelly Grass, an extra-sweet soft drink with a grassy iced-tea flavor and bits of jelly at the bottom. The kitchen also prepares Thai iced coffee and tea to order, and since there’s no dessert menu, either makes a nice finale to your taste bud-awakening, flavor-abundant meal.