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May 7, 2009 10:10 PM

Nam Kao and Kao Poon at Van Vieng Kham in Santa Rosa (Laotian)

Alerted to a severe accident and car fire blocking Hwy 101 near Petaluma, I decided to have a dinner stop in south Santa Rosa instead of getting stuck in traffic on the way back to the City. Just before 7pm on a Saturday, I was the only customer in the place for this return visit. I asked the owner about some of the Lao dishes, not on the menu, that she had mentioned my first time. I was especially interested in trying the kao poon, a curry rice noodle soup. The proprietress shook her head and pointed to an empty pot on the stove, saying that she’d just served the last portion. She checked in the back with her mother who said that she had some kao poon at home. A family member was dispatched to retrieve it.

Meanwhile, I snacked on an order of Nam Kao, crispy rice salad with sour lao-style sausage. Only the rice was not so crispy, more like the browned shards at the bottom of the pot., so I’m not sure I’d order this one again. Tasty though shot through with finely minced lemongrass, scallions, and other fresh green herbs, as well as julienned strips of pork skin and diced pink pork sausage that was akin to an unsmoked but cured ham. Once again, the accompanying herbs were as fresh as can be, and I enjoyed wrapped them up with some of the citrus-scented rice mix in the leaves of romaine lettuce. I’d like to know the name of the heart-shaped vine leaves rimmed with red that has a sour-ish taste.

The Kao Poon included a long-simmered red curry soup flecked with pounded fish and chicken, bits of galangal, garlic, and lime leaf. The skinny rice noodles were served on the side, along with some dried red chili pods; a slaw of cabbage, carrots and bean sprouts; more dewy fresh green herbs (mint, rau ram, frilly cilantro, scallions); lemon; lime; dried red chili flakes; and coarsely ground, almost a paste, oily roasted peanuts.

Now, this was worth waiting for. My first encounter with this dish, the tone of the red curry reminded me of Vietnamese bun bo hue but with more depth and robustness. The soup radiated the warmth and loving touch of a grandmother’s hand. I can’t say if this is the same as the kao poon usually served here, I just feel lucky that I had the chance to taste it.

Next time I hope to try the grilled beef tongue, and if it’s a weekend, the raw farm beef laab with book tripe.

Vang Vieng Kham
3446 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA

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  1. Those are two of my favorite Lao dishes...Nam Khao and Khao Poon. "Khao" means rice in the Lao language. I prefer my "Nam Khao" to be nice and crispy, but I do realize that some Laotians (and westerners) prefer the softer version of Nam Khao. I'm glad to know that you also prefer your Nam Khao on the crispy side. In my opinion, Nam Khao should always be nice and crispy unless if the chef doesn't know how to make it the authentic way.

    For the Khao Poon, did you add all of the shredded vegetables to your curry rice noodle soup? Khao Poon is usually always topped with the shredded vegetables and then mixed into the soup along with the noodles. After you've added all of the noodles and shredded vegetables to the curry soup, squeeze a few drops of lime juice to the soup ONLY if you think the soup is still too salty for you. For me I prefer my Khao Poon slightly salty so the lime juice is usually not needed.

    Khao Poon is not just a simple rice noodle soup. The actual soup is thickened with pounded/minced chicken or fish that's simmered in the red curry coconut soup. It's the pounded/minced chicken or fish that gave the soup "the warmth and loving touch of a grandmother's hand". It's definitely a very robust soup and you're definitely making me hungry with that photo of Khao Poon. =)

    8 Replies
    1. re: yummyrice

      Is Nam Khao typically served warm? Or is room temperature ok? I like it better when freshly cooked.

      1. re: DezzerSF

        It should be freshly cooked and served warm, because if it gets cold the Nam Khao will no longer be crispy. As a Lao person who prefers authentic Nam Khao, I really dislike Nam Khao that doesn't have chunks of crispy rice in it. I love Nam Khao not just for its taste, but also for its crispy texture.

        1. re: yummyrice

          I forgot to mention that I do realize most ethnic dishes in the U.S. are modified to suit the American palate. If westerners prefer Nam Khao to be soft rather than its traditional crispy texture, then restaurant owners will unfortunately adjust the texture of Nam Khao to please their customers. So far, Vientian Cafe in Oakland is still catering to the Laotian population by offering authentically crispy Nam Khao.

          1. re: yummyrice

            How do you like Champa Garden's version?

            1. re: DezzerSF

              Champa Garden's version is pretty good. It's not as crispy as Vientian Cafe's version, but they're both good in different ways. I'm not positive, but I believe Vientian Cafe's version seems a little bit more traditional (i.e. made from deep-fried rice balls), whereas Champa Garden's version seems like a stir-fried version of Nam Khao. If I had to pick one, I'd go with the Vientian Cafe version.

            2. re: yummyrice

              The version I've had recently at Chai Thai is crisper than the one at Champa (though nothing compares to LOS in Vegas on the crispness front). It's also more varied in texture, with larger pieces of the cured pork and chewy pork skin, and whole peanuts. It also appears to be made w/ broken rice. The condiment assortment at Champa Garden is, however, more varied and generous.

              1. re: lexdevil

                What do you mean by "broken rice"? Is it the kind similar to Vietnamese broken rice? The authentic Lao way of making Nam Khao is usually very tedious because it involves first forming the spiced rice into large rice balls coated with eggs and then deep-fried. More and more restaurants are now skipping that "rice balls" step and prefer going straight to deep-frying or baking the individual rice grains to make them crispy. However, I will always prefer the authentic way over the "quick" way that some restaurants are now doing because although I like my Nam Khao on the crispier side, I wouldn't want all of the rice grains to be crispy...most of the grains should be soft with some chunks of crispy rice blended in. That adds to the nice varied texture of Nam Khao. That's also why I prefer chopped peanuts in Nam Khao over whole peanuts. You don't want the whole peanuts to be the dominant texture in the dish. Nam Khao should be a nice blend of all of the various textures from the individual ingredients that are used in the dish. However, I do realize that restaurant owners will tailor their recipes to suit the western palate.

                1. re: yummyrice

                  At least some of the rice at Chai Thai is small, broken pieces like Vietnamese broken rice. It could just be that they're using cheap rice. The rice is not crispy through and through (as it is at LOS in Vegas). Some is soft. The ratio of crispy to soft is just higher than it is at Champa Garden. I have no idea if whole or chopped peanuts are more authentic. I simply enjoy the more varied texture of the dish at Chai Thai. I like that not every part of the dish is the same size. No idea if this is due to my "western palate." I don't think of Chai Thai as very westernized compared to most Bay Area Thai restaurants, but you may disagree.

      2. Since you enjoyed eating "Khao Poon Nam Phik", you should ask the owner to make you some "Khao Poon Nam Jaew", which is similar to the version you had, but this other version does not use curry or coconut milk. It's a lighter version and I think it's kind of more "exotic" because you don't have the red curry coconut mixture to help "hide" the pig innards or mask the taste of the pig innards. Actually, I'm not sure if the Khao Poon you ate at the restaurant had any pig innards in it. Khao Poon is traditionally prepared with pig innards and cooked pork blood cubes, which is why I always prefer homemade Khao Poon over restaurant-prepared Khao Poon.

        3 Replies
        1. re: yummyrice

          The owner explained that khao poon can be made with pork or with chicken/fish. What her mom had at home was chicken and fish, no pork, and I was fortunate that they were willing to drive home to retrieve it and serve me some.

          1. re: Melanie Wong

            Yeah, that was definitely very nice of them. I don't think anyone has ever done that for me. =)

            1. re: yummyrice

              Melanie is supernice...I'm sure the owners were thrilled to do this for her. Thank goodness for serendipity- best way to find cool places!

        2. Sounds great! I couldn't spot your red rimmed leaves, however. It was always great getting new and unknown leaves in rural Laos - including newly emerged leaves from coffee and mango trees.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            Here's the full sized photo. The plate with the cabbage shows the leaf's red-veined underside. The plate to the right shows the topside. The fine red edge around the heart-shaped leaf isn't displayed well. These reminded me of yam leaves in shape and vine stem.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              I can't view the pictures anymore, but I believe those are betel leaves called "Bai E-Lert" or sometimes "Bai Nang-Lert" in the Lao language.

          2. Does anybody know what time they open?

            1. Vang Vieng Kham may be closed or possibly have irregular hours. I stopped by on a Saturday at 11:30. The sign in the window said they opened at 10.30, but it was completely closed and there was no answer when I called the number on the sign.

              8 Replies
              1. re: sfbing

                So does anyone know if they went out of business?

                1. re: yummyrice

                  We had a nice dinner there last Saturday (June 13).
                  I'll post more about our experience later -- but we were very happy.

                  1. re: Joel

                    Five of us dined very well here on Saturday June 13.
                    We did not want the food too spicy, because of the wines:
                    1989 Givry Clos du Cellier Aux Moines
                    1987 Ridge Jimsomare Zinfandel
                    The total corkage fee was seven dollars.

                    We were served by a very amusing woman who identified herself as half Chinese and half Korean. The first thing I asked for was Lao sausage, and she was crestfallen to admit that she herself had eaten the last of it. She talked with the older lady behind the counter, who scolded her, and then told her that they indeed had more at home in the freezer -- but there was no offer to go home and get it for us.
                    We asked for Lao specialties, and "Lao-style" on the ones that are Thai or Lao.

                    We had
                    #6 Spring Rolls ($6.95). Very fresh-tasting, lots of herbs, very nice peanut sauce.

                    #12 Som Yum ($6.95). Green papaya salad. Very tasty, lots of fermented fish aroma.

                    #13 Larb Kai ($8.95) with chicken, mint and romaine lettuce.. Good "barbecue" flavor on the ground chicken.

                    #16 Tom Kha Gai ($10.95) Sweet and sour soup with coconut milk. Very complex flavors (galangal, lemon grass etc). Sweet, hearty, creamy -- a crowd favorite, a bit too sweet for me.

                    #25 Drunken Noodle (#7.95) with tofu. So named because it is served to drunken people (hangover remedy? Unclear).
                    All this came with excellent sticky rice.

                    We were asked about spice level on one of the dishes, I forget which one, and she suggested "two-peppers." I thought this was "on a scale of one to ten", but it literally meant they put in two hot peppers. Unfortunately one of our party bit down on one of the peppers, to much distress.

                    Not yet full, we ordered another dish, which she said should be served with regular rice, but we stuck with sticky:
                    #33 Pad Ped Basil (($10.95) Duck stew. Excellent dish, flavors very up front.

                    For dessert, mango (Manila) with sticky rice and coconut milk, and fried banana with vanilla ice cream. I was too full to try these.

                    We arrived at 6:30; the place was empty, there was one other table of two when we left, and a couple of take-out orders.
                    As we left, we noticed that the tattoo parlor next door was shuttered.

                    1. re: Joel

                      My wife Joan and I were with Joel at Van Vieng Kham on June 13th and, unfortunately, I am the one that bit down on the hot pepper. Joan and I brought the Givry, which was surprisingly fruity and fresh for an '89, with a lovely Pinot nose.

                      Not much to add to Joel's remarks, except that I had a bone to pick with the Pad Ped Basil. Thought the duck pieces were too fatty, with less meat than usual. Thoroughly enjoyed the meal, however, and would go back.

                      1. re: Joel

                        We came here again. As we pulled in, there was hardly a parking space available. We thought they were doing a good business on a Saturday night. But no, the cars belonged to the patrons of the newly opened "medical" marijuana place next door -- called "Starbuds".

                        Unfortunately we were the only patrons of the restaurant. The four of us enjoyed the Larb Ped, Tom Yum soup, Pad Thai and green papaya salad. We asked for "Lao-style" on all of the dishes. I asked the woman in charge to explain the difference between lao and Thai style -- she dismissively said that Thai food was either too sweet or too sour, but Lao style was just right. Indeed it was, the food was delicious.

                        The bill included a five-dollar corkage fee (we had one full bottle and one half bottle). We paid $55 not including the tip.

                        We were told they are looking for a new place to rent, closer to town.

                        1. re: Joel

                          Thanks for the update, and knowing that they want to move, I won't freak out if the space is vacated. There's a hot dog stand in that little mall too, isn't there? It moved up from Rohnert Park.

                          Charlie's Serious Chili Dogs
                          3444 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa, CA 95407

                          1. re: Melanie Wong

                            anyone know if they are still on SR ave or now closer to town? I want to try it but it's a little out of my way so thought i'd check first.
                            Also how would a vegetarian fare - will eat fish - my husband is veggie

                            1. re: sonomajom

                              Sorry, no idea, maybe the restaurant moved this morning. It was still there a few weeks ago. For questions like this, you're best to call the restaurant for the most up-to-date information instead of posting here.