Washington, D.C.’s first Laotian restaurant, Thip Khao, opened at the end of 2014 in Columbia Heights and has hit the ground running. There may be a lack of familiarity with Laos cuisine in this area, but that hasn’t kept the place from filling up and garnering strong early reviews. Even in the middle of the week, the restaurant is crowded and bustling, with eager diners packed in close.
Thip Khao is the second restaurant for chef Seng Luangrath, in addition to Bangkok Golden in Falls Church. Luangrath, who fled Laos in the early 1980s with her family and learned to cook while living for two years at a refugee camp in Thailand, is well-versed in both Laotian and Thai cuisines.
The spectrum of Laotian flavors is actually quite similar to what you’d find in many Thai dishes, with an ever-present blend of spice, sweet, sour and salt. The bordering countries share much in culture and cuisine, and since returning home from a month spent in Thailand, I’ll take any excuse I can get to revisit some of the authentic flavor profiles found anywhere in that region.
The menu at Thip Khao is touted as Laotian family style cuisine. Each diner receives a personal woven basket of sticky rice — as well as photo tutorial provided along with the menu, if there’s any lingering confusion — to use along with whichever dishes are ordered. In fact, Thip Khao means “sticky rice serving basket”. Feel free to use your hands and grab a bite of this, a bite of that, some sauce over there, some sticky rice, and you’re good to go.
The menu features an array of noodles, rice dishes, soups and curries. Don’t pass up on the Naem Khao salad (featured photo above), one of the restaurant’s signature dishes, with small chunks of crispy rice bits, pork, coconut, lime, peanuts, cilantro and chile. It’s meant to be rolled up in lettuce wraps, but you could ditch the wraps and eat it by the fork full, it’s that good.
Lettuce wraps are prominent amongst the entrees as well. Try the Mieng Viengchanh, with cod or salmon grilled in banana leaves to keep all of its moisture inside, served in a robust, herbal sauce and an array of toppings. Most entrees offer a choice of different proteins, and don’t forget to choose your spice level too — Phet Noi for mild, Phet Lai for medium, and Phet E’Lee for hot. Other scattered standouts include the Gang Dang red curry with coconut milk, an easy choice for anyone who likes Thai-style curries, and the Siin Heng sun dried beef, an ideal sharable starter to open up your meal.
The separate Jungle Menu is where things really get fun, and chef Seng lets loose with a more adventurous cast of ingredients and dishes. It’s here where you’ll find Sai Oua Luad, spicy pig’s blood sausage; Yum Hu Moo, steamed pig’s ear served with cellophane noodles and tamarind sauce; Chuenh Sai, crispy fried intestine; and Ping Hau Jai Kai, grilled chicken heart.
You’ll also find an amped-up version of the regular menu’s papaya salad, made to torch — or perhaps torture, if you’re not into real heat — your palate with spice. Other dishes on the Jungle Menu include salmon head soup, Laotian beef tartare and minced Guinea fowl skin. If you’re ready to try something new, you won’t be disappointed with the big, bold, authentic flavors and dishes on the Jungle Menu.
The area that seems to need work at Thip Khao right now may be the specialty cocktails. Maybe it was just an off night behind the bar, but both sampled on a recent visit were out of whack proportionally and weren’t overly appealing. You may want to choose instead to wash down all that spice with a Singha beer, or a sweet Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee.
Whether you love authentic Thai food and are interested in sampling something similar, or you simply want to check out one of the city’s tucked away new hot spots, visit Thip Khao and let chef Seng take care of you for an excellent exploration of Laotian cuisine.