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May 2, 2009 12:05 AM

Le Cheval in Oakland (Vietnamese, but with a Lao bent?)

I read a post on another website, which stated that Le Cheval doesn't serve traditional Vietnamese cuisine, but more like Vietnamese cuisine with some Lao influences. I know that it's a Vietnamese restaurant, but what dishes do they have that might lead someone to think that the dishes are influenced by Lao cuisine?

Le Cheval
1007 Clay St, Oakland, CA

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  1. Lao? I don't think so unless they've changed their menu recently. It has always been pretty standard to mediocre Vietnamese food. The only place I can think of that is Lao/Vietnamese is Vientian Cafe on Allendale. Very no frills place with really good food. .more Lao influenced than Champa Garden IMHO.

    Champa Garden
    2102 8th Ave, Oakland, CA 94606

    Vientian Cafe
    3801 Allendale Ave, Oakland, CA 94619

    13 Replies
    1. re: pastryqueen

      I decided to take a look at the Le Cheval menu again and did notice some Lao influences as far as their curry dishes and curry-inspired dishes are concerned. So I decided to do a little research to confirm my observations and learned that Vietnamese cuisine has some influences from Laos and Cambodia as far as their curries are concerned, which would explain why some of the dishes at Le Cheval uses curry as an ingredient, whereas most Vietnamese restaurants in the west (i.e. Pho places) don't have many curry-inspired dishes. Their Calamari Salad also reminds me of a type of Lao salad called "Yum", a spicy and tangy salad, but that could just be a coincidence.

      Anyway, Le Cheval now offers a Lao beverage called Beerlao. Has anyone tried ordering Beerlao at Le Cheval?

      1. re: yummyrice

        Curry isn't an ingredient, it's a general term used in English for many different mixes of spices.

        Seeing that word in descriptions of dishes on a Vietnamese menu is a sign that it's Americanized.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          yeah I know, but I meant to say curry powder, which is used as an incidental ingredient. When one thinks of curries, Vietnamese cuisine typically does not come to mind. I'm sure that the dishes at Le Cheval are Americanized, however, I ended up searching for articles about Vietnamese cuisine and its history and learned that curries in Vietnam are influences from Laos and Cambodia, which in turn had incorporated the use of curries and spices from India.


          Only a couple of the dishes at Le Cheval resemble Lao/Cambodian curries, but the restaurant is definitely serving Americanized Vietnamese cuisine.

          1. re: yummyrice

            I do happen to think of curry when I think of Vietnamese food, probably because I used to have it at least once a month. That curry chicken stew (ca ri ga) is pretty typical of Vietnamese food. Every Chinese-Vietnamese family I know has their own version. The predominant characteristic (I think) is that it typically has a lot less coconut milk than a thai curry, so there is a coconut fragrance but it isn't nearly as heavy or sweet. It also verges on soup rather than stew and is typically eaten with toasted french bread and rice noodles, garnished with the usual Vietnamese salad fixings of bean sprouts, lime, chili, rau ram, etc.

            Also, if you are making it at home, you must use a Vietnamese curry powder blend. I don't know how the Vietnamese modified the curry powder recipe, but other blends don't taste right.

            1. re: sfbing

              "Ca ri ga" sounds like a Vietnamese pronunciation of "Curry Gai" (Curry chicken). The many articles on Vietnamese cuisine credit the use of curries in Vietnam as an influence from Laos and Cambodia. I've met some Vietnamese people who also mentioned that curries were introduced to Vietnamese people by way of Laos and Cambodia.

              Anyway, Lao curries have always been light on coconut milk, whereas Thai curries are drenched in coconut milk. Lao curries are also not as sweet as Thai curries, so I'm not surprised that Vietnamese curries are also light in coconut milk and not as sweet, similar to Lao curries.

              I've never tried the Vietnamese "ca ri ga". I would like to try a good version of that dish. Do you have an recs for me? Thanks.

              1. re: yummyrice

                I hate to do this to you, but I haven't found a version I really like in a restaurant in SF. But then, I'm not looking that hard. I haven't tried the one at Le Cheval. I would bet someone who is more familiar with the Vietnamese food scene in San Jose might know where to find a classic example.

                Actually, the best one I ever had seemed like someone's personal invention because it was really idiosyncratic. They made it with fresh coconut milk (from coconuts, not a can), ducks (yes, plural), pork's blood, taro, and boiling onions. If anyone has a tip where I can find a curry like THAT, I would be really interested.

                1. re: sfbing

                  Fresh coconut milk is usually always preferred over the canned variety. Your friend's version does sound interesting and very unique as I've never had a curry dish made with pork's blood. I would love to try that version at a restaurant someday. =)

            2. re: yummyrice

              In Laos and Cambodia, they pound fresh wet aromatics such as lemongrass, galangal, chiles, and limes with whole dry spices, just as they do in some parts of India.

              Prepared curry powder was invented by the British based on garam masala, which in India is traditionally ground fresh as needed. Interesting question how and when it arrived in Vietnam--might have been introduced by Chinese immigrants.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Indian spices/powders/pastes were brought to Laos and Cambodia from India and we were taught how to make curry pastes. However, Laos is in between India and Vietnam. Therefore, I agree with Vietnamese cuisine experts that those spices and curries were first brought to Vietnam from Laos (and Cambodia). In addition, southern Vietnam is influenced by Cambodia. It couldn't have been traders from China, because it seems that Vietnamese curries are more similar to Lao and Cambodian curries because of the use of both lemon grass and coconut milk. The articles written about Vietnamese cuisine, including what some Vietnamese people have told me, seem more reasonable that Indian spices were brought to Vietnam from Laos and Cambodia.

                As far as the term 'curry' is concerned, you have to keep in mind that the western concept of 'curry' is usually not the same as the Southeast Asian concept. In Laos, Thailand, Cambodia (and maybe Vietnam), 'curries' usually refer to a type of 'sauce' made from a blend of fragrant Indian spices and coconut milk, whereas in Britain all dishes that use a blend of spices would be considered curries. The term 'curry' is a western adaptation and since we're typing in the English language, I decided to use the British word, whereas in Asia our term for curry is actually based on the Indian word "kari", which is a type of sauce made from Indian spices.

                1. re: yummyrice

                  I'm talking about commercial generic curry powder, which the Vietnamese use in a few dishes. Mai Pham recommends the Three Golden Bells brand in her "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table."

                  Cambodians don't use curry powder, they start from scratch. I believe Laotians start from scratch or use commercial pastes, like Thais to. The Chinese do use generic curry powder in a few dishes.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Curry pastes are typically used to make Lao/Thai/Cambodian coconut milk-based kari/curries (SE Asian definition), but curry spice powders are used for other curry-inspired (non-'kari') dishes like Satay (originally a Malay dish). Curry spice powders are also used to make certain stir-fried curried crab dishes.

                    Anyway, we all prefer curry pastes from scratch, but it's definitely more convenient to use commercial curry pastes. Laotians/Cambodians in the U.S. prefer using commercial pastes, but the ones in SE Asia still make curries from scratch with the exception of restaurants. However, some homes do use commercial pastes just for their convenience. In Thailand, I believe it's quite common to use commercial pastes. The art of making curry pastes from scratch is becoming a lost art.

                    1. re: yummyrice

                      I'm sorry, but Thai curry pastes are very easy to make: you grind fresh galangal (blue ginger), onions, chillis, lemon grass, some garlic, ginger, etc. Every single one of my Thai relatives and friends in Bangkok do that! It's certainly not true that "The art of making curry pastes from scratch is becoming a lost art"! And we should be thankful for that.

                      1. re: klyeoh

                        P.S. - coming back to the topic of this thread, i.e. Le Cheval, I first tried it in 2007, been back there 3 times since during my business trips to Oakland (at behest of colleagues). I thought it was one of those bad-but-inexplicably-popular restaurants.

      2. It always seemed like somewhat Americanized Vietnamese to me. I don't see any Lao dishes on the menu.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Thanks. I was just curious that's all because I didn't understand why anyone would associate Lao cuisine with Le Cheval especially since the name "Le Cheval" is French, so I assumed that it would be more like a fusion of Vietnamese and French cuisines.

          1. re: yummyrice

            Nothing French about it either other than the standard colonial influences (e.g. pho evolved from pot au feu).

        2. I haven't been there in YEARS but their clay pot dishes used to (and hopefully still do ) rock!

          1. for years, it was an amazing hole-in-the-wall with fab food.
            now, the food is quite mediocre, but it's great for watching a slice of life in oaktown.
            but definitely not Laotian in food.

            5 Replies
            1. re: escargot3

              When was it a hole in the wall? I ate first there over ten years ago, and it was the current huge place with adequate food adjusted to the mostly non-Vietnamese clientele.

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                When it was in the hotel at 14th and Clay or was it Jefferson. It was the first place I had beef 7 ways. It was about $6/ person.

                1. re: wolfe

                  It was in the ground floor of an SRO hotel. I'll get the address next time I drive by (it's still there). Moved after Loma Prieta, but was still there for a while after the quake. There were cracks in the plaster from the quake, marked in huge print that read, "7.1 was here."

                  1. re: lexdevil

                    Pretty sure it's the Jefferson Inn at 14th and Jefferson.

                  2. re: wolfe

                    Yep to all that. I would guess '94 or '95 it was the whole in the wall. I went to the new location twice then gave up.