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Sep 22, 2007 07:35 AM

[Wichita] Thai-Lao Cafe a winner!

After making my pork belly score at the Thai grocery on S. Hillside last week, I spotted the sign for an intriguing eatery, the Thai Lao Cafe in the perpendicular strip center one door south. Having an errand in that neighborhood (oh, two...i had to get more pork belly also), I decided to have do the 'hound pioneer thing. So glad I did...though immediately after walking through the front door, I was about ready to do an about face and head somewhere's a bit spooky linen tablecloth in sight...rather, a handful of plastic folding tables and folding metal chairs, and a small counter toward the back with a hand-written menu on the wall behind.

I approached with some trepidation...I was curious about the Lao aspect and most of the dishes listed seemed to be Thai. However, I quickly remembered that Laos is the NE neighbor of Thailand and shares a linguistic and cultural branch of the Thai tree, Lao is a Tai language variant, and the food in Laos, or some at least, has much in common with NE Thai food, Issan in particular, I believe. And having had Issan food in various places including the legendary Lotus of Siam in Vegas, I was keen to see what they could do.

The woman behind the counter, though, appeared to have trouble understanding my English...but i was soon rescued when her (I assume) husband approached and assured me that the menu items were mostly Lao derived. He was amused that I was seeking Lao and not Thai and asked me if someone had sent me there...I told him I simply saw the sign and was curious.

Anyway, I opted for the old reliable Larb (Lahb on their menu) which unfortunately only comes in beef...not sure if that is a Lao thing or an expediency for the Kansas locale. Anyway, he told me it tasted different from Thai Larb and that it was very good. He was right. The meat itself looked familiar, though maybe overcooked for my sake (it should be nearly raw or barely cooked)...but instead of being served on a bed or lettuce/salad, the vegetables were served on the side, a heaping plate of lettuce, fresh chiles, raw round green eggplant (remember, most eggplant varieties are not purple), and something that looked like dark eggplant (!!!) colored green beans. A basket of sticky rice was also included. Well, the combo was fantastic, the meat laced with fresh mint and cilantro, various other flavors including minced kaffir lime leaves and probably galanga, a relative of ginger. It was delightful, the sticky rice and vegetables made for a nice foil to the spicy, hot lahb. I was in heaven.

The gentleman was most gracious and asked if everything was ok, I nodded yes since my mouth was full and I couldn't (politely) speak. Thai TV was beaming from a satellite and the experience was probably like little hut cafes in the lao countryside, that's how it felt...the inside is just that rustic. But don't be frightened by that...the owners were very very welcoming and the food promised to hold more surprises: Lao beef jerky, fried chicken wings, various forms of catfish, papaya salad, and other Lao/Thai goodies.

Try this place, I guarantee you'll have no fear of meeting Denise Neil here!!!! Though maybe we should plan a Chowhound gathering here to sample the entire menu, that is if we can get more than three people interested!@!!

more to follow....

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  1. Returned to Thai-Lao yesterday. Still a bit strange inside...wasn't sure it was open, but forged ahead...glad I did.
    Had Nam Tok, they spell it differently, as do almost all menus...all spell if in different ways....anyway, i think it is #2.
    It was an amazing plate of food for $7. It was sliced beef, grilled or sauteed, piled with a plate of vegetables and served with sticky rice ( $3) and a piquant "sauce" of lime juice, salt and minced bird chiles. WOW that was hot. The meat was tastier and more plentiful than we had at that joke of a restaurant Chester's Chophouse (though I'm sure Denise Neil, with her amazing insight, would disagree). This is a true Chowhound bargain.
    Still lots to try on the menu. Looking forward to the curries and the lao beef jerky.
    This must be the most overlooked gem in Wichita.... work up the courage and try it!

    17 Replies
    1. re: sambamaster

      Hmmm...very intriguing. I'll likely be in Wichita again around Christmas time (was just there week before last, actually). Might have to try it.

      1. re: revsharkie

        revsharkie, it's worth a visit. I went again yesterday and had pad kee mao (drunken noodles) which were wonderful: flat rice noodles sauteed with beef, shrimp, some green vegetable, thai basil, chiles, soy sauce, etc. The flavor was perfect, though I added a tad more roasted chile sauce to boost the heat some. It was a huge portion for $6.00. Worth every cent. Guess I'll be working my way through the rest of the menu...looking forward to the green papaya salad, beef jerky and some of the curries. Still a weird vibe inside, but the food redeems that 100-fold!

        I forgot to mention: I think there may be another Lao restaurant in Wichta...some clues indicate as such. Will report what I find later...after a visit...

        1. re: sambamaster

          I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't quite a bit of Laotian influence here. There seems to be a decent sized Laotian population.

          1. re: shopgirl26

            Is the Lao community a result of the air base? That sort of thing often happens...I'd bet the Thai population here is a result of air guys bringing back Thai wives...then entire extended families. Happened in Austin...the first two Thai restaurants there were air force wives from Thailand. Laos is on the eastern border of Thailand and I bet we have a base there somewhere....
            Anyway, get ye to these places!!!! Cafe Thai Lao is a cheap, yummy meal.

            1. re: sambamaster

              Probably WSU. There's a large Asian community there, at least there was when I went there. You'd better get to the Asian Festival on Saturday at Century II. I heard the food is reason enough to go.

              1. re: shopgirl26

                Do you guys have a street address?????

                Steve S.

                1. re: SteveStephens

                  google tells me it's 2433 s. hillside........

          2. re: sambamaster

            Went again yesterday and had a wonderful, no, really wonderful noodle dish, Raad Na, i think was the name. It was sort of layered with flat rice noodles on bottom, then some pieces of scramble eggs, then some beef and greens of some sort, then all covered with a spicy, garlicy "gravy" sort of sauce. it was really good. a nice balance of hot and sweet. Nice. It comes in beef, pork shrimp, seafood versions. Owner recommended it when I'd ordered their Pad Thai. Glad he did. This place keeps delighting me.
            Two notes: They don't seem to be serving weekends...they seem to rent the space out for parties...we went sunday and received funny stares from a Mexican wedding party that was assembling for a festivity. Call first i think.
            Also, the other Lao place down the street never seems to be open, though i called a couple of times and they;'ve said they are open. the sign says "closed" every time i go by. maybe need to go by at night?

            1. re: sambamaster

              Newly sampled dishes last Friday, when I could finally take Sarge for lunch (military doesn't allow lunch breaks!!!! she had Fri. off) included the "Beef Jerky", normally referred to as Heavenly Beef and Som Tum, a green papaya salad. Both were great, but the Som Tum was transcendent, the best version of this I've ever was freshly prepared after we ordered it, green papaya shreds mashed with cherry tomatoes in a mortar and pestle and seasoned with lots of fish sauce, lime juice, chiles, etc...sprinkled with a bit of dried shrimp and peanuts. I've had this many times and this was certainly heads above the rest. Sarge loved it. The beef was a bit bland, but tasty. They should have given us some chile dip for the beef which is marinated in seasonings, dried in the sun for a few hours, then fried in hot oil until cooked through. The flavor was good, the meat a bit chewy, but the normal chile dip would have made it much better...and some beer too!!!

              Sarge raved about the food. Glad she liked it...I was afraid she might not since the ambience is not quite to the spic 'n' span level of say, Applebee's. She'll go back. Also, the owners were delighted to see her, welcomed her like family since I'm there so often.

              Folks, if you don't try this place, you are missing some of the best chow in town....

              1. re: sambamaster

                I live close to this place and would like to try it, but age has limited my ability to handle some spices. I'm not familiar with Thai or Lao cuisine. Can you make a suggestion? Will the above be mild enough? I've lived here a long time and am embarrassed to admit I don't try these places (but I don't like the chains either). I agree with almost everything you've written, that I know about. Concerning the Laotian community: they are boat people who were planted here by sponsorships or government, if you are old enough to remember that. They've been here awhile.

                Luciano's is nice. Take Sarge for a walk around the historical museum next to the restaurant and in the other direction to an old style small town park. Very sweet.

                1. re: cimanom

                  thanks for the tips....will get to Luciano's soon. but, damn, I still make the best Italian in the it's gonna be hard to impress me!!!!! Ha.
                  Regarding the spice level. Since really everything is made from scratch,they can raise or lower the heat as requested. Tell 'em what you want and go for it. The owners are amazingly willing to adapt or flex as you request. Example:

                  Was gonna post something today about our visit last night...I'd asked the owner if he was familiar with a NE Thai/Lao dish called Jungle Curry...he said, "of course!" Though he called it Jungle soup. I also asked if they would make this dish upon request and he said, with a day's notice, they could. bro' was coming to town to do some work and i asked the gent at T-LC if he'd whip up some Jungle chow, and also, if they could do a special catfish curry for Sarge...ok, all set for Sunday night. We invited another couple along, so the five of us converged on the place around 7. We carried in our own beer which is perfectly ok...since they don't have a permit. We proceeded to order a few other dishes to round out the evening's menu: lahb, som tom (papaya salad) and drunken noodle (pad see ewe).
                  the food was amazing and the owners were tickled that we were so "into" Lao food. they seemed to be willing to bend over backwards to show us the best. And they succeeded. Our other couple (longtime doo dah residents, and fans of SE Asian food) agreed that it was the best SE Asian they'd ever had in Wichita. My brother was likewise in heaven. We gobbled the food and quaffed the brew...(there is a very inexpensive liquor store a few blocks south...). We also had sticky rice and plain white rice, as well as a bottle of, here is the amazing part. We ALL left stuffed to the gills and had leftovers to boot. The entire meal checked out at a walloping $41. 41 bucks for all that food. amazing. simple surroundings with some of the best food in town for about the price of a steak at many places we've been to and regretted (chester's, scotch and sirloin, etc).
                  I will repeat this: if you are a hound and don't get to this place, you are missing an amazing experience. don't complain about the food in this town if you don't at least make an effort to get to this joint. funky place, astonishing food.

                  1. re: sambamaster

                    what is the sound of one hound clapping, or, rather, slurping? Is anyone out there at all???? Is Wichita really this dead?

                    Oh well, i'm having some fun, and finding some decent food. So, too busy to hit Thai Lao since the last post...odd, since I've been going at least once a week since I found it in the summer. But, having come down with a head-twisting cold while in Iowa over the weekend, I had to have some SE Asian soup which usually knocks the cold on its viral a-s. (ok moderator, chop away) So I headed to Thai Lao Cafe for some soup, specifically the classic Tom Yum. And YUM is right! Their version is amazing...fresh, full of mushrooms, cilantro, pork, shrimp and other goodies. Wonderful broth with tons of flavor. Really, really good. And all of about five bucks. go to your uptown thai joint (t.tradition on carriage pkwy) and a lesser version in lesser quantity will be about 2.2 times that amount. take your pick, ICT, good cheap food in a dive, or expensive mediocre food where the wait staff often wears simply adorable costumes. aint that cute?
                    i'll continue to say T-L Cafe is the best SE Asian in this city. I sure won't let another month pass before I return again.

                    1. re: sambamaster

                      Hey Samba, I was wondering if you were still here. There have been several postings lately. Did you happen to see the one I posted about the Augusta Roasting Co.? Or the suggestions I had for Mexican? As far as Thai Tradition, you kind of have to remember that if the digs are nice, the prices are gonna be higher. Not that it's a 5 star restaurant, but something has to pay the bills--know what I mean? I'm curious, what do you eat when you're just hungry-do you have a go-to, not that great but you like it type of thing?

                      1. re: shopgirl26

                        I saw those posts. I gave up on local roasters and am going to start doing myself again. just ordered a new coffee roaster and 15 pounds of green coffee beans. Next week!!!! And have not had a chance to try those Mexican places. But today I found a lead for a new place which looks like it could be THE place...saw an ad in a Spanish language newspaper i picked up at the El Salvadoran restaurant i ate in and ordered "mis tamales para navidad", but that is tomorrow's posting!

                        1. re: sambamaster

                          So I take it the Augusta Roasting Co. doesn't really roast? I have a few more places for you concerning Mexican-courtesy of my friends at Ch. 51-which is the Hispanic channel. They agree that there are few places that are authentic, but they offered these up...
                          El Rancho/Rancherito, not sure which, Los Mananitas, 21st St. Burgers. They said if the truck you have been to was Rico's and is blue and white, it's the only one they know of....Hope this helps!

                          Is the El Salvadoran place on Central?

                      2. re: sambamaster

                        On behalf of the entire state of Iowa, I apologize. We've had some nasty bugs in this part of the world here lately. Hope you won't return the favor when I'm in Wichita next week.

                        1. re: sambamaster

                          Samba: I've been out of town the last few months. Can't wait to try T-L Cafe. Will probably go this week. Thanks for your efforts. BTW, the Vietnamese and Lao folks were originally resettled in Wichita in large numbers by the churches, particularly the Catholic Church.

          3. I just discovered this restaurant a few months back and I can't get enough of it. My 13 yr old twins and I love it. The restaurant is a bit odd but the food is sooo good and cheap.
            You really are missing out if you do not try this place.

            1. Ok so I joined Chowhound just to reply to this thread. I consider myself a foodie and love to try little "hole in the wall" restaurants.
              I've often lurked here to get the scoop on local restaurants. Since I love Thai food I decided to try this place.
              This was hands down the the worst atmosphere I've ever experienced and yes, some of the best cuisine. The owner's were very nice and there was actually a few other diners there.
              It was me, Dad, and kids. We ordered the # 1 Larb which was excellent, even better than what I make at home. # 2 Rad na which was a thick noodle with beef, eggs and greens all in a beefy brown sauce. Dad didn't care for this, but I liked it. It was a little different than what you would ordinarily think of with Thai food. And now for the #4, I can't remember the name, but I think it was called Nua Yang, based on a quick google search I just did. This was the charboiled beef dish with a spicy sauce on the side. ONLY $7.00!!!. Seriously, I want to go back there right now and eat!!!
              Anyway, thanks sambamaster for spreading news of this little gem.

              1. >>>I was curious about the Lao aspect and most of the dishes listed seemed to be Thai. However, I quickly remembered that Laos is the NE neighbor of Thailand and shares a linguistic and cultural branch of the Thai tree, Lao is a Tai language variant, and the food in Laos, or some at least, has much in common with NE Thai food, Issan in particular, I believe.

                ^Thank you for sharing your experience with us and I realize that your post isn't a recent one, but I just wanted to clarify that Lao people are not a branch of the Thai tree. According to linguists, both Lao and Thai languages belong to the Tai language family. Tai and Thai are two separate things and so please don't get those two words mixed up. We are Lao, not Thai. In addition, the foods in Issan region of Thailand came from Laos and not the other way around. Just because many chowhounders on here have been to Thailand before Laos does not mean that the dishes originated in that same order as your exposure to the cuisines of those two countries. For example, many people in the U.S. have only tried sushi prepared in the U.S., but this doesn't mean that Japanese sushi originated in the U.S. You experienced Larb for the first time in either Thailand or the U.S., but Larb actually originated in Laos.

                Larb/Lahb/Laap is a traditional Lao dish that spread to Thailand from Laos. People in Thailand also enjoy eating Lao foods. The two countries are neighbors after all. Anyway, in Lao cuisine our Larb dish can be made with beef, chicken, pork, fish or whatever protein element you prefer. It's called Larb because in our Lao language, "Larb" means fortune and prosperity. The traditional way to eat Larb in Lao cuisine is to serve it with Lao sticky rice and some fresh vegetables on the side.

                It's considered kind of an insult to Lao people when our dishes are mistakenly referred to as Thai just because of the foreigners lack of knowledge regarding the differences between Lao cuisine and Thai cuisine. We understand that Westerners are more familiar with Thai cuisine and that it makes the disctinction more blurred considering that most Thai restaurants also serve Lao dishes on their menu. So visit Laos and you will learn about our cuisine and realize how much the people in the Issan region of Thailand have in common with their ancestors in Laos as far as Lao dishes in Issan are concerned.

                4 Replies
                1. re: yummyrice

                  I'm in Wichita from Austin TX - noticed this post. I'm way NE, so I'm just checking to see if things are still going here at this restaurant.

                  There's a Malaysian place close to me....couldn't find any posts about it. I' may try that, since I have a Malaysian food-friend. I realize that Malaysian doesn't have anything to do with Laotian, BTW).

                  1. re: rudeboy

                    I ate there about 6 weeks ago, again a great meal and yes... same weird place. So as of then it's still in business. Hope you enjoy it. If it's not open venture south about 6-7 blocks to My Canh.

                    1. re: wmkwhite

                      Well, I took off and ate at the Malaysian Cafe tonight. I thought that it was excellent. I'm not an expert, but I think that I did select two good dishes: Nasi Lemak and Spicy Shrimp (or something like that). The Nasi was (I think) traditional - a spicy stewed chicken in a spicy, tangy medium served with cucumber, boiled egg, and fried anchovies. The rice was not a coconut rice, as it should be, but the whole damn thing was $5.95 with two pieces of chicken. Skip KFC next time and try this. Beware, the anchovies are whole, with heads, and crispy fried - served alongside the stew in a sweet/spicy sauce.

                      Spicy Prawns - I looked this up on a Malay website, tasting it in my hotel as I read the ingredients. It is very similar to what's described here:

                      "whole prawns or shrimp are cooked in a classic Malay sauce; a spicy robust sauce made with chilies, shallots, garlic, stewed tomatoes, tamarind paste and belacan [also spelt belachan or blacan], a dried shrimp paste paste. "

                      Both dishes were spicy and satisfying.

                      1. re: rudeboy

                        I'm not longer in Wichita. The Thai-Lao Cafe is about the only thing I miss!! Glad they are still around. Rudeboy, they are worth a visit.

                        But that Malaysian place is pretty good, if you get past the styrofoam dishes! Used to go there from time to time for a bit of variation.

                2. Thanks to all of the posters here on Chowhound, and particularly to sambamaster! We went to Thai Lao Cafe for the first time tonight. It is still here. It is still exactly as you describe it in ambiance. There was a unique mural, kind of time warp early '80's of 3 or 4 women musician/dancers, a small stage in the corner, Thai (I think) news on the TV, all much as posters described in 2007. Also, as described, the food was fantastic. We were were the only patrons who were eating in. While there, a couple of people came in for carry out. The gentleman who ran the kitchen/counter was friendly, helpful, and appeared to be genuinely pleased that we we enjoying the food he prepared for us. There was a little bit of a wait because he was preparing the take out orders when we arrived. No problem. We had the papaya salad, a basket of sticky rice, and a, well, I'm not sure about the 3rd item. I had asked for something without meat (for me - my husband enjoys meat). The dish had broad rice noodles, fabulous greens (similar to chinese broccoli) and sauce. It was very, very good. I think that this usually comes with meat mixed in, but I had asked for no meat pieces. The cook/owner/manager (?) very thoughtfully brought the chicken and "beef jerky" on the side. The chicken was fine, not crispy - but the meat was moist and tasty. The "beef jerky" was very, very good. It was crisp and chewy, my husband (who ate and enjoyed all the meat) reported. The papaya salad: WOW! Crispy, spicy, tart, sweet, sublime. Great by itself but my husband says paired with the beef jerky - it made both even better. He says the only thing that would have made it better is a cold beer. We will definitely go back. What a find. Thanks to all.