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Aug 13, 2009 06:07 PM

Luang Prabang

Compared to Vientiane, Luang Prabang was fulll of tourists, and the restaurant scene really reflected that. Prices were much higher, and most restaurants have Western dishes on the menu, as previously reported. Tamarind, which received rave reviews from a number of people already, turned out to be as good as I had read. They did a great job introducing me to Laotian dishes and their cooking class was excellent. This is a must-go place in LP - they are open for lunch and dinner. Go early during the trip, in case you decide you want to eat there again. For dinner they have special feasts that require a minimum of 2 people. If you are a solo traveller, the best way to enjoy the feast is to just pay for 2 people - then you get twice the food!

The night market was very disappointing for about the first hour. I spent that time walking around looking at the large piles of precooked food wondering who was going to eat all of it. When I was about to give up, I found a green papaya guy pounding away in the alley next to the Ancient Luang Prabang Hotel. His workstation was meticulously clean - he placed the pestle in a clean plastic bag before setting it on the table. He used another bag as a glove while squeezing lime juice. He asked how many chilis I wanted, and laughed when I said 2. The portions are small and the chilis are potent. The salad was 7,000 kip plus extra for sticky rice, depending on how much sticky rice you want. It turned out to be a great meal after all.

The morning market is more chowhound-worthy. Most women were selling vegetables, but there were a few food vendors scattered about. I found at least 2 bbq folks grilling meat. I could see their bucket of raw meat on skewers, and figured this must be the time when they cook the meat for the evening market. So, if you don't mind having grilled meat for breakfast, this is the time to get it. The chicken wings I got (10,000 kip) were tasty. I also found a woman frying flattened round pieces of sticky rice. They puffed up like poori when fried, and then collapsed back down once out of the oil. The texture was crispy, the taste was similar to sticky rice on a stick, and she had little time to drain them so they were oily. 5,000 for 3.

Joma - let's just say that my expectations were too high. The croissants were pale and didn't look flaky. So I opted for a cinnamon bun, which was very similar to the Cinnabon (US chain specializing in cinnamon buns).

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  1. What dishes did you order at Tamarind? Did you order the Luang Prabang salad?

    A snack that I love is "khao gee" (grilled sticky rice coated with egg on a stick).

    1. Tamarind does not serve authentic Laos food, but rather food tuned down for western palates. I am not saying the food is not good, it is, but it is NOT Laos.Padaek, after all is an aqired taste and one many foreigners don't like. If you want to try authentic Lao food, try Tamnak Laos.
      By the way, I agree with you regarding Joma. Joma became popular after getting write ups in Lonely Planet. It is full of tourists. Expats eat better elswhere.

      21 Replies
      1. re: RonfromLaos

        Why would you think that Tamarind is not authentic? Tamarind serves northern Lao cuisine. Not everyone uses padaek (Lao fish sauce) in their cooking especially if they live in northern Laos. The people in northern Laos don't eat as salty as the ones in central and southern Laos. Padaek is a common ingredient in the other regions of Laos, but Luang Prabang has its own cooking style. Luang Prabang serves traditional northern Lao cuisine, but it seems that you're more used to Vientiane cooking or somewhere more southern where padaek is plentiful.

        1. re: yummyrice

          Hi Yummyrice,
          Even the Nth Laos use padaek. my mother in Law comes from the Nth and she makes her own padaek. It stinks out the neighbourhood when she does. :-)
          Tamarind has toned down its style to suit foreigners. They also use some ingredients not commonly used by traditional lao. As I said, that does not matter if you like it, just don't think it is authentic. I know LP cooking pretty well, as i often have to go their for work. One of my favourite dishes of all time is Or Lam. I also love anything cooked with river weed.
          By the way, my Lao wife refuses to go to Tamarind again, just as she does not want to go to Makphet here in Vientiane. This is another Lao restaurant, serving good, but westernised, (and overpriced) food. Try Tamnak Lao in Luang Prabang if you want a real food experience.

          1. re: RonfromLaos

            I know many people from Luang Prabang and they prefer their dishes on the plain side. Other people have also told me that in Luang Prabang padaek isn't used as much as it is in Vientiane and the southern regions. To me, Luang Prabang foods are more natural and they use lots of veggies. Their palate is more delicate than the ones living in Vientiane and especially in southern Laos. Even for Or Lam, padaek is optional. But when other Laotians make Or Lam, padaek is a requirement. =)

            I like to compare my cooking to other Laotians from various regions. From what I've noticed, northerners don't eat as salty as us, which is why padaek isn't as pronounced in their cooking as it is in mine and other Laotians. They also seem to prefer pork over beef (or buffalo), but don't quote me on this.

            You have to realize that when cooking Lao foods, there is no standard amount for padaek just like how when making mac and cheese some Americans prefer using more cheese than others.

            Some people prefer using a little bit of padaek, whereas others prefer a lot of it. I don't think we should definite which amount is more traditional since there are various cities and villages in Laos and the people in each location have their own preferences. Everyone thinks that their version is more traditional, so the people in the various regions of Laos will never agree on whose recipes are best.

            Take larb for example. It's tastier when made by people from the south, but the ones in the northern parts tend to make it on the plain and subtle side. However, I'm sure there are some exceptions.

            Luang Prabang cuisine is heavy on fish, pork, and veggies, whereas southern Lao cuisine is heavy on red meats like beef. At least that's what it seems like to me.

            Where is your wife from? Is she native to Vientiane?

            1. re: yummyrice

              Yes, my wife is from Vientiane, which is also where we live. She has been to Australia twice and we are off to France and Germany at Christmas which will be an experience for her. I hope its not too cold! Anyway, I know she will like the food and she even eats and likes cheese, which is very unusual for any Lao I know.
              You are a Lao living in the States I assume?
              Btw best Larb I ever had was made by my mother in law. Turkey larb for a barsi given for us, and absolutley beautiful.

              1. re: RonfromLaos

                I had a feeling that she was from Vientiane since central and southern Laotians tend to use more padaek than northerners.

                Anyway, most Laotians don't like cheese because I guess they're not used to the smell? But I live in the States now, so I don't mind eating cheese.

                hmm turkey larb sounds awesome. Let's see a pic of your mother in law's larb. =)

                And oh, I'm sure your wife will have a great time in France and Germany.

                Just remember to pack some sticky rice with you in case your wife gets a little homesick though...hehe jk!

                1. re: yummyrice

                  Actually we are meeting up with a Lao friend who is studying in Lyon. He asked us to bring some food - Khao Niau, padaek etc, so we will have supplies with us.

                  1. re: RonfromLaos

                    LOL! They don't have any Lao stores in France?

        2. re: RonfromLaos

          Ron, I'm usually in Luang Prabang twice a year for several days each time. Most of the expats I know there think Joma has the best baked goods. I pretty much agree with that. If you know somewhere better, please do tell. Especially if it's chocolate.
          btw, I do agree with you about Tamarind vs Tamnak Laos.

          1. re: el jefe

            Hi el jefe, I must admit I was speaking more about Vientiane than LP. There are 3 Jomas here in Vte and 2 of them are nearly always full, but it is usually b/packers. I much prefer the Scandinavian Bakery next to Nam Phou fountain. The coffee is better and the cakes and pastries are much better. The best western style coffee in Vte imo is in the small coffee shop right in the corner of the morning market mall, which uses beans from their own plantation. I have started drinking more and more Lao style coffee as well.

            1. re: RonfromLaos

              Ron, Thanks. I rarely get down to Vientiane but I know the Scandinavian Bakery in Luang Prabang pales in comparison to the one near the Nam Phou fountain in Vientiane. Don't understand why. The one Joma in LP is the place to go. Unfortunately everyplace in LP is overrun with backpackers.

              1. re: el jefe

                I am maybe late to reply the post but i hope any one of you will be back and read this updated news in Luang Prabang, Luang Prabang had a lots of interesting Restaurants and Bakery opened today. Joma and Scandinawian are still a good one but if you are in Luang Prabang and miss the real bread or French pastries please drop by at Le Banneton, opp. Wat Sop, Sisavangvong Rd., Luang Prabang, I know you will like it and would want to return

                1. re: LPB Born

                  Having recently visited Luang Prabang I was really dissapointed with what I found in terms of food.

                  It seems that most restaurants are ran by foreigners, and so most places have relatively high prices, and sell western fare. A Scandinavian bakery, a Swedish pizza place, Italian pasta places... what is any of this doing in Luang Prabang?! What's next, an Argentinian steak house, or maybe a Japanese cheese burger place?!

                  Surely I can't be the only one that wanted to eat Lao food in Laos?! :(

                  1. re: GordonS

                    Well Gordon, there is plenty of Lao food in Luang Prabang. Did you try any of the small restaurants by the river? Did you go to Tamnak Lao or the Three Nagas? Did you have the Lao menu at L'Elephant which is owned by a Frenchman and his Lao partner?

                    1. re: RonfromLaos

                      L'Elephant seemed very expensive, and I didn't see much Lao food on the menu. I was staying at the 3 Nagas, which had a matching highly priced menu.

                      I had intended to try Tamarind, which always gets good things said about it here, but it was full.

                      1. re: GordonS


                        It's capitalism, just like the rest of the world. There's plenty of Lao food in LP, even if much of it is geared towards tourists. And if the backpackers and the new trendy tourists want pizza, croissants, and nouvelle Lao food, it's reasonable to expect that someone will provide it.

                        I'll be in LP in two weeks after having spent several nights in places like Ban Don Chai, Muang Khua, Nong Khiaw, and Pak Xeng. Some of the food will be excellent but basic Lao cuisine. Some will be tourist drek. My wife and I will appreciate some of the variety available in LP even if it's not authentic. She'll hit the bakeries, while I enjoy some of the best Indian food in Indochina.

                        We'll also have dinner a Tamnak Lao, as Ron mentions. It's my favorite Lao restaurant in LP. I'm really not a fan of Tamarind. It gets great press and is fine for your first day in Laos. The owners and staff are wonderful and it's an excellent intro to Lao food. but it's all toned down and geared towards foreigners. If you've had several meals in Laos, it's pointless to go except for the atmosphere.

                        1. re: el jefe

                          I suppose you are right; with a small town like Luang Prabang that basically relies 100% on tourism, perhaps this is inevitable.

                          Or perhaps I didn't look hard enough, or didn't know where to look (I did a lot of searching beforehand, but I couldn't find much info, reviews etc available for Luang Prabang).

                          I doubt I'll ever go back to Luang Prabang, but I'd like to see more of Laos in the future and will perhaps have better luck food-wise elsewhere.

                          1. re: GordonS

                            I agree with El Jefe regarding Tamarind. L'Elephant has a Lao tasting menu, by the way. Look at their website.
                            Regarding the French food, remember that Lao was a French colony and hence has a tradition of French food. Even the Lao themselves eat it at times.

                            1. re: RonfromLaos

                              Here's my update on the LP food situation based on my trip last week:

                              Not much has changed.

                              Nazim on Sisavangvong still does great Indian food. Maybe the best in Thailand and Laos outside of Bangkok.

                              Tamnak Lao was excellent as usual, although a friend of mine who dined with us was diagnosed with e-coli the following morning.

                              L'Elephant's prices continue to go up. With the poor exchange rate, I can't see a reason to go at these prices.

                              Joma is still the best bakery in LP. the Luang Prabang Bakery is a distant second. The Scandinavian Bakery, which imho was never very good, is now the Swedish Pizza, or something like that. One of my friends insisted we go. I didn't see much difference.

                              Tamarind move to a new location on the Khan River. Unless you're just off the plane or boat, I still see no reason to go.

                              My one new recommendation is to stay away from any of the Khmu locations (there are at least two -- one on Sisavangvong on the restaurant strip and the other on the Mekong. I normally don't eat at the same-same restaurants on Sisavangvong, but I can't always dictate where we eat. Service was terrible. Few dishes were as ordered. And they tried to charge us for dishes we never ordered. They ran out of sticky rice. The steamed rice was cold. Someone had turned off the rice cooker hours before. And one of my friends ordered pizza. Despite waiting 40 minutes, it came out cold. Not just cold as in they left it sitting somewhere for 20 minutes, but cold as in it was cooked the day before (or the week before) and put in the refrigerator. They didn't understand why we wanted to send it back and it took over 20 minutes for it to come out warm. You've been warned.

                              1. re: el jefe

                                Hard for me to comment on Luang Prabang, as I have not been there for a year. However in Vientiane I would rate the Scandinavian Bakery as far better than Joma. It is cheaper and has better pastries and far better coffee. Joma attaracts more customers because it is featured in Lonely Planet, so you get all the backpacker crowd. The expats go to the Scandinavian Bakery on Nam Phou square.
                                El Jeffe, Swedish Bakery/Pizza and Scandinavian Bakery are two different places in Vientiane. Are you sure they are the same place in LP?

                                1. re: RonfromLaos

                                  Actually I just re read some of your older posts. It appears that the S B in LP is nowhere near as good as the one in Vientiane.

                                  1. re: RonfromLaos

                                    It's the exact opposite in LP from Vientiane. Only backpackers in the Swedish Bakery/Pizza (Scandinavian Bakery) with expats and more upscale tourists in Joma. I can't compare the coffee because I tried it in neither.

                                    I'm 100% sure that there is no longer a Scandinavian Bakery in LP. That location is now the Swedish Bakery/Pizza but nothing about the food or decor has changed. I have no idea who owns it or manages it and how it's now related to either place in Vientiane. But in LP, I'd avoid it.