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May 21, 2005 07:13 PM

Nam Kao @ Vientian Café, Oakland (Allendale)

  • m

After Sunday’s disappointing lunch performance in Berkeley, I decided to try to find Oakland’s Vientian Café to satisfy my longing for some good Lao/Issan food before leaving the East Bay. It was exactly where Kim said it would be on the corner of 38th and Allendale. The name is spelled without a final “e”. I got a parking space right in front.

While not a fancy spot, it was less of a dive than I was expecting. It even accepts credit cards, including Amex! There were only a couple other patrons when I arrived shortly after 6pm, but soon this small space was packed with hipsters and multi-generational family groups and doing a big business in take-out too. The menu offers “Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese Cuisine”, and the overflowing condiment tray on the table spans this diversity.

I asked my friendly waitress to point out the Lao dishes for me. They were mostly in the appetizer and salad section. I picked Nam Kao, $5.95, to start. When I had trouble deciding upon a second selection, she discouraged me, saying that one dish should be enough if I wasn’t starved and I shouldn’t order too much for a first visit. I didn’t specify a level of spiciness, just asking my waitress to make it the way she liked it.

The nam kao was wonderful delivering all the excitement and electricity that I had hoped to find. Cold and hot temperatures contrasted with salty, sour and spicy seasonings and crispy, chewy, and soft textures. Crunchy bits of deep-fried rice blended with tender half-cooked nubs of salty and fermented sour Lao/Issan pork sausage mingled with bits of scallion, lemongrass, toasted coconut, toothsome strips of pickled pork skin, chopped roasted peanuts, and cilantro in a tangy light dressing. The base spice level was only moderate, and I did not bundle up the whole dried chili peppers with the other garnishes provided with the red leaf lettuce. Combined with the fresh mint and cilantro, the sum of the flavors and textures was very complete and satisfying. I didn’t tire of it and polished off the whole plate.

For dessert, I tried the roti with sweetened condensed milk. The roti was baked with little oil, giving it a more delicate texture that was almost like a griddled flour tortilla. While I appreciated the freshness, I’m not sure I’d order this again.

This little spot has made a big first impression on me and I’m looking forward to sampling more from the menu. What do other ‘hounds recommend?

Vientian Café
3801 Allendale Ave.
Oakland 94619
Monday to Sunday, 11am-9pm

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  1. c
    Caitlin McGrath

    Interesting that the condiment tray has a packet of Knorr tamarind soup base!

    1 Reply
    1. re: Caitlin McGrath
      Melanie Wong

      That's what attracted me eye to the condiment tray. Not only is it Knorr soup base, but it was the Filipino language version.

    2. . . . nearly six years later, I was back at Vientian Café a few weeks ago for lunch.

      To start, the appetizer of Lao sausage, $2.50. The menu says "baked" but the crusty edges make this look deep-fried like a ripper dog. A bit dryish, but super tasty with exotic spices and a slight sourness.

      Then Kao soy, my first experience with a Laotian rendition of this noodle soup. This featured wide rice noodles in tomato broth, ground pork, scallions, and cilantro, $5.99. Without coconut milk, the Lao version is much different than Khao soy of Thailand or Burma’s ono kauk swe. More tart, and less like a brothy yellow curry, this bowl has a light, refreshing quality with porcine meatiness lurking in the depths.

      On the counter, puffed rice cakes bagged and ready to go made a good take-away for something sweet for later.

      Vientian Cafe
      3801 Allendale Ave, Oakland, CA 94619

      1 Reply
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        The Vientian Cafe has raised their prices.

        Many lunch plates went up $2.00

        $5.99 to $8.00

        Which is a little pricey considering the curry plates consist of a small Ramekin of curry and a small mound of rice and a orange slice.

        Their curry can be very tasty, but half the time it is served "broken" which kinda ruins the whole look and taste of the dish.... seems to bother me a little more after the price increase.

        Vientian Cafe
        3801 Allendale Ave, Oakland, CA 94619