Vientiane highlights (and one lowlight)
I'm off to Luang Prabang tomorrow, but thought I'd write a quick post since "I'll post about it later" never seems to happen.
Ban Anou night market was small (one block long) but had some great food. Sticky rice on skewers, other meats on skewers including sai oua. There is a procedure with the meat on skewers. They are sometimes partially cooked beforehand, and laid out so that the handles are pointing toward the customer. You hand the woman what you want, and she will grill it for you for about 5 minutes. I had the best pork laab - freshly made with plenty of herbs and a few innards. The same stall had a boiling cauldron filled with more innards, and when I pointed at them, the woman gave me some tongs so I could pick out which pieces I'd like. The soup and the innards were ladled into a bag (I don't even want to think about leaching of chemicals out of plastic), and so I ended up with larb (plus the veggies), sticky rice, and soup for 17,000 kip, which amounts to about $2.50ish.
The morning market (Thong Khan Kham) is also a lot of fun for foodies. There's more produce/meat/seafood than anything else, but there are a number of noodle vendors. They don't speak any English, but they do offer a variety of delicious noodle soups if you can communicate what it is that you would like to eat. Again, the innards/tongs procedure applies here. I paid between 7,000 and 12,000 kip, depending on what I ordered.
I've not found any other markets in Vientiane that have great food. Talat Sao, unless you're shopping for cheap junk, was a complete waste of time.
The grilled river fish stall directly across from Carol Cassidy textiles was also good. They have a small penitentiary for the fish where they exercise before they are grilled. Fresh at its best! 20,000 kip for one of the smaller fish.
The stall next to Viang Sawan (grilled meatball place found in Lonely Planet) had great fried banana, fried taro, and kanom krok. I was surprised that these kanom krok were better than any that I had tried in Thailand - I must have tried them from at least 5 different vendors in Thailand, in several different cities. The ones here 1) have a crispier edge that is thicker (think good canneles) and 2) had more different types of toppings. 5,000 kip each.
I love the variety of fruit shakes here, and am glad that all the great fruit is in season. Thus far my favorite shake is guava, mainly because it is much much tastier in the shake format than in the simple cut up with sugar and chilis format. Mangosteen juice is also delicious.
Although I was looking forward to Kualao, this ended up being my worst meal and most expensive ($13.50). Having eaten the delicious larb from the nightmarket the night before, the larb that arrived as part of the set menu was extremely disappointing. Not a speck of dry roasted chili was in sight, and there were hardly any herbs mixed in. The fish wrapped in banana leaf was hard and dry. The soup of tofu, meatball, and bean thread noodle was completely bland. The deep fried egg was also very bland. Even the pineapple served at the end of the meal was not flavorful. The only redeeming part of the meal was the or-lam. It was tasty, but this is the first version I've tried so I have no basis for comparison. The entertainment (musicians and dancers) was nice though. I don't know whether the Laotians get any better food, but the table of Chinese tourists nearby all received chopsticks and proceeded to eat the sticky rice with chopsticks. The next day, I spoke with a Laotian that told me that restaurant was touristy and she didn't like the food there.
I just heard that the long row of wooden shack restaurants on the Mekong in front of the Beau Rivage Hotel was razed. There goes some of the best food in town.
>>The soup of tofu, meatball, and bean thread noodle was completely bland.
I'm not positive, but I believe you had something called Gaeng Jeud (aka "plain soup")...LOL! Everything else does sound pretty terrible, but I believe the soup is meant to be plain hence the name.
>>The soup and the innards were ladled into a bag (I don't even want to think about leaching of chemicals out of plastic)
LOL! I don't blame you for thinking that!
>>The stall next to Viang Sawan (grilled meatball place found in Lonely Planet) had great fried banana, fried taro, and kanom krok. I was surprised that these kanom krok were better than any that I had tried in Thailand
Khanom kok is one of my favorite Lao snacks. It's surprising that the Thai-style ones aren't similar to the Lao-style ones.
>>I had the best pork laab - freshly made with plenty of herbs and a few innards.
I loooove pork larb. Chicken larb is alright, but my favs are pork and beef.
You might be interested in a local slant form someone who has lived in Laos for some years now.
Kua Lao is popular with locals, Laos and expats who can afford to eat there. It actually does serve the best Lao food in town.