I’ve said it countless times before, and I’ll say it again: somtum is the national dish of Thailand. This fiery papaya salad is what fuels the nation, and yet overseas it’s still green curry or pad thai that the country is most famous for.
That might be about to change, though: central London’s Lao Cafe promises to be the first of a new type of trailblazing Thai restaurant – and at this cutesy little spot, it’s the papaya salad that takes centre stage.
While Lao Cafe – from Saiphin Moore, the face behind the mini empire of restaurants and cookbook that is Rosa’s Thai – might bill its cuisine as hailing from Luang Prabang, in truth that means it’s the much the same as the food from Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, predominantly inhabited by Thais of ethnic Lao origin. And as a result of mass migration to Bangkok over the years, it’s by extension the food that’s served from street stalls all over the capital, and elsewhere around the country.
Wherever we say it comes from, the focus on this Thai-Isaan-Lao cuisine can only be a good thing, since it’s far closer to the mystical ‘authentic’ Thai food we’re always hunting for – in other words, the kind of thing that’s genuinely eaten by millions of Thais day in, day out – than comparatively bland pad thai or (admittedly to a lesser extent) green curry.
And refreshingly, at Lao Cafe, this outstanding cuisine is done justice. A short hop from Leicester Square, it’s a small and wonderfully unassuming, albeit trendily designed, restaurant, but the food punches well above its weight. The short menu, evidently fuelled by a genuine love for and understanding of Laotian cuisine, stretches across salads, soups, and grilled meats and fish.
The tray-style somtum tart pla rah, papaya salad with fermented fish, is a sight to behold, loaded with pla rah and practically breathing fire (of course, they’ll tone it down if you like). It’s far and away – no exceptions whatsoever – the best papaya salad I’ve had outside of Thailand. Unlike the regular plate of somtum, the to-share ‘tart’ version comes surrounded by portions of rice noodles, salted boiled egg, moo yor pork sausage slices, and blanched beansprouts.
It’s fantastic to see a restaurant that, unlike so many, isn’t afraid to unleash true pla rah on its customers in the name of genuine flavours – even more surprising, the menu also features somtum hoy dong, the version of the salad that features bloody pickled cockles (another personal all-time favourite, needless to say).
Dip sticky rice in the juices and, alongside the papaya salad, chow down on delights like jee sint grilled beef (neua yaang in Thai) – in what’s perhaps a slight departure from the meat grilled on Bangkok’s streets, this was a great cut of quality, flavoursome beef – served with spicy and sour nam jim jaew dipping sauce.
The hot and fragrant tom saab soup with pork ribs was another highlight of my meal, while other dishes well worth exploring include the laab bped minced duck salad, yum makua yao grilled aubergine salad, and soup nomai bamboo salad.
While not overpriced, Lao Cafe London certainly isn’t a cheap option for a quick Thai meal. But it’s about as true to the real thing, that ‘authentic’ Thai-Lao food, as it’s possible to get. East London’s Somsaa might have been the place to be seen in 2016 – I was impressed with the food there, too, and especially liked the bar-like atmosphere and the excellent cocktails – but the food at Lao Cafe is heaps better yet, on the Isaan front if not right across the board.
It’s no understatement to say this is where you need to be if you want a real taste of the flavours of the streets of Bangkok, influenced by northeast Thailand and, in turn, Laos. Lao Cafe is at the top of its game and at the forefront of the scene right now – if this is half the picture of what the UK’s Thai restaurants will look like in the future, I’ll be a happy bunny, and will have one less reason not to move back to the UK.
60 Chandos Place (Leicester Square tube); 020 3740 4748; www.laocafe.co.uk
Sunday to Thursday, 12-10.30pm; Friday and Saturday, 12-11pm
Have you eaten at Lao Cafe? Where is your favourite Thai or Lao restaurant in London or elsewhere in the UK? Leave a comment below!
DISCLOSURE: I ate at Lao Cafe at my own expense. All opinions are of course my own.