Lao food in Sacramento has long been harder to find than its near-neighbor cuisines, Thai and Vietnamese – at least in the restaurant community. For many years, West Sacramento’s Vientiane was about the only place to try Lao specialties, but in recent years several spots have opened, primarily in south Sacramento and Elk Grove. Most recently, however, I tried a new spot, Jannoi’s App-Khao Papaya & Noodle Shack, in an outlier of a neighborhood: a drab (if not downright sketchy) stretch of Auburn Boulevard near Watt.
The restaurant’s name is almost bigger than the restaurant itself, which occupies a slightly awkward L-shaped space that was formerly a Middle Eastern place. Run by a married couple, it’s welcoming and familial, though the strip-mall setting is more pleasant inside than out.
Nervous types should know that center where it’s located is a bit sketchy. On my first lunch visit, the server walked out with me and my lunch companion, saying that there had been a purse-snatching in the same strip mall a few days before. (I was, however, intrigued by a pool hall called Kabul Snooker, kitty-corner to Jannoi’s.)
Is it worth heading to a less-than-upscale neighborhood for the Lao cuisine? That depends on what you order. The menu is compact, though in some ways that makes choices easier. Familiar Thai standards – drunken noodles, pad thai – are on offer alongside jeow bong fried rice, seen lott (Lao beef jerky), papaya salad, and various kinds of laap, the Lao spelling of the salad-like meat or chicken dish that Thai-food lovers may know as larb.
Let’s start with the papaya salad, since it’s an important enough dish at Jannoi’s App-Khao for them to put it in the name of the restaurant. Papaya salad, too, may be familiar to lovers of Thai food. The Lao version is funkier, fishier, darker and often spicier than the Thai version – a telling indicator of how Lao cuisine differs from nearby regional cuisines. I’ve found the Lao cooking style to be a little more rough-hewn and rustic, bursting with flavor and generally complex.
The papaya salad here is all of those things, and you get the choice of spiciness levels. I asked for medium and the server steered me to two chiles on my first visit – a “medium” clearly adjusted to American palates, as it was just a little piquant. Three chiles wasn’t notably hotter on a second visit, but it had good balance and was a pleasant accompaniment to other dishes. There’s also a good cucumber version of the salad on the menu, but the shredded green papaya has more tang and crunch, which makes for a better dish.
Jeow bong, a complex spice paste of aromatic ingredients pounded together, is a signature condiment of Lao cooking. It comes in a brick-red dollop on top of the fried rice named for it, and while again I wanted it a bit spicier, I liked its earthy, deep flavor. The fried rice, however, was a little heavy and greasy, with a sparse sprinkling of the included meat.
That greasiness was also a characteristic of drunken noodles, which were marked as spicy on the menu but could have used more oomph and less oil. Another Thai dish from the menu, pad kaprao, was more successful: the stir-fry of minced chicken with green beans and plenty of chiles and Thai basil, topped with a lacy-edged fried egg, was one of my favorite renditions of this dish I’ve had in town.
Possibly my favorite item at Jannoi’s was an appetizer of lemongrass beef skewers. Curry-yellow and succulent with fat, these boasted plenty of the pleasantly gritty crunch of lemongrass, a lightly sweet marinade. The meat itself was chewy and a little tough, but that lent it lots of beefy flavor.
The seen lott, or beef jerky, was tough in a less-pleasing way, fried to a cracked-leather texture that was hard to even bite into. Once gnawed into, the flavor was good, and the spicy tomato dipping sauce with it was worth a little fight with the meat. But the texture of the meat was disappointingly far gone.
Less tough, but still oddly disappointing, were the deep-fried chicken wings. Splayed out and fried so that the skin had gone past crunchy to hard, these tasted all but unseasoned, making them fairly uninteresting on a table full of other, more interesting flavors. Maybe all the flavorings had gone into the Lao sausage, which was a little too dry but had lots of lemongrass, layered spices and a nice dose of heat.
I was more taken by the laap, a kind of dish that’s ideal for hot summer (or early fall) days. Chicken, beef, or shrimp are all available, and when we asked about shrimp we got a choice of raw or cooked. Jannoi’s offers a lot of menu choices like this, in a seeming bid for flexibility with more and less adventurous palates. With the chicken laap, for instance, diners can get just plain ground chicken meat or can add hearts and gizzards; beef laap can include tripe or not. We got the raw shrimp. They were sweet and tender, with a ceviche-like texture, bright acidity and a shower of fresh, fragrant herbs to add color and crunch.
The “noodle shack” part of Jannoi’s long name comes, presumably, from the Lao noodle soups on the menu: khaopiek, with thick pillowy tapioca noodles and a cloudy, intense chicken broth, and khaopoon, with slippery, thinner round noodles, red curry and chunks of chicken. (There’s also pho on offer, which I didn’t try.)
The mild khaopiek gets a nice jolt of savory flavor from fried shallots, and its thick broth reminded me of congee. It would be a comforting bowl for a day of recovering from being slightly under the weather. Khaopoon, by contrast, is spicier, with a base flavor of wild lime leaves and coconut, reminiscent of Thai tom kha gai, but more fire from the red curry. The chicken in both came in oddly inconsistent pieces: some shredded fine, some in chunks almost too big to pick up in the spoon and a little bit dry. Both soups were pleasant, though not mind-blowing.
Drink options here are limited (don’t come expecting a cold beer to wash down spicy dishes), but the Thai tea is sweet and strong. Iced coffee is also very sweet, with a topping of pure cream. Service, and indeed the whole place, is unpretentious but welcoming and accommodating and eager to please. Alas, the food doesn’t completely succeed in that aim; it’s uneven, though there are some standouts, and other items show potential, with a great flavor base but textural flaws.
Jannoi’s is honestly striving – and I appreciate their ambition in opening up in a neighborhood where southeast Asian food hasn’t been on offer before. Their location looks a little tough right now, and the food could improve, but I’m rooting for them to improve and succeed.
Jannoi’s App-Khao Papaya and Noodle Shack
3510 Auburn Blvd., Suite 10. 916-320-5209.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
Cuisine type: Laotian and Thai.
Price range: Appetizers and soups $6-9, entrees $9-12.
Food: Some items on the relatively short menu, like an unusual and vibrant raw-shrimp laap and aromatic lemongrass beef skewers, are hits, but others (too-plain chicken wings, tough Lao beef jerky) miss the mark. Noodle soups and Thai dishes are solid.
Service: Signs say to order and pay at the counter at this mom-and-pop-style place, but the eager-to-please server offers welcoming table service.
Ambiance: Unassuming, with basic tables and chairs, but colorful pictures from Laos on the walls add atmosphere. TVs playing music videos and food-tourism shows may be either alluring or distracting, depending on your bent.
Accessibility considerations: Plentiful parking and a flat lot and entryway. Tables at the front of the L-shaped restaurant are well spaced but the route to the counter where customers pay may be a bit narrow for some to navigate.
Noise levels: Modest.
Drinks: No alcohol. Thai tea, coffee, juices, and soft drinks available.
Vegetarian options: Limited: three of the entrees are available in vegetarian versions.
Allergy and dietary considerations: Those with fish or shellfish allergies will want to ask carefully, as fish sauce and dried shrimp are common Lao ingredients. Peanuts top several dishes.