One of my favorite books on exotic cuisine is an oversized, colorful tome called "Thai Street Food" by David Thompson.
The photos of food and folks, along with the details of ingredients and techniques are so thorough and vivid you can almost smell and taste what's cooking amid the cramped stalls tucked along so many crowded streets.
Vientiane is tucked away, too – into a West Sacramento strip mall near an Interstate off-ramp. The view: a Chevron station. And thus, the odds are stacked against this place, which tends to soar with its food and crash with the way it presents itself to unsuspecting passers-by.
For years an underdog on the culinary scene, Vientiane has long been a favorite of foodies and those with a sense of adventure. But it remains largely unknown to many who just might appreciate its honest cooking, lively flavors and pretty incredible prices.
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Frankly, Vientiane does almost nothing with its décor to capture the energy and intensity with which the people of Thailand and Laos fixate on food, flavor and the pursuit of their next great meal. The dining area, sad to say, is a box with tables and chairs and lights overhead. That's about it. If we were to dub it a dive or a joint, that would be a fib, because such places have to have a modicum of quirkiness or eccentricity or wit, and this storefront eatery does not.
But then there's the food, which will bowl over those unlucky souls who judge a restaurant by how it looks from afar or how it feels in the first five minutes at the table.
Some of the food here is good, some tremendous.
Let's start with the latter. The stuffed chicken wings are one of Vientiane's signature dishes because they capture precisely what this place is all about – marrying the exotic and the familiar.
The overall eatability of these wings is a pleasure of taste melding with texture – of noodles and minced chicken meat mixed with onions and spices. They're different enough to remind us that this kind of cooking hails from the other side of the globe.
The larb is another dish that's both approachable and mysterious. You're looking at a plate of ground beef, slices of cucumber, a wedge of lime, some fresh, leafy lettuce. But hidden among the meat (you can also opt for chicken or pork) and the onions are the fireworks – the minced chilies that bring plenty of heat and make this dish sing. This larb has a slow simmer on the palate that can burst into flames within seconds. Have water nearby.
A cold beer works even better, or so it seems. Vientiane would do well to expand its very limited selection of beer and get on board with the growing craft beer movement, and perhaps even showcase local offerings.
You won't cool down if you follow the larb with the excellent papaya at Vientiane. If you're a bit of a timid eater and reluctant to try foods that seem so foreign, this is your gateway dish. It's easy to love, loaded with crunchiness, a bit of sweet, a touch of the tart, then the full-fledged heat of chilies. Sprinkle peanuts, roasted and crumbled, among the papaya to give it some added crunch and mild flavor.
Three dishes down and it no longer feels like we're eating in a strip mall looking out toward people pumping gas. We're in the zone. We can't help focus on the allure of the food.
My favorite dish at Vientiane just might be the chili fish with spicy tomato sauce. It's a thick fish steak with the deep-red sauce baked into the meaty white fish, an unassuming affair that stimulates and challenges with every bite. The fish itself is mild, but the sauce is quite complex with a finish of spicy heat, and there is an underpinning of something exotic and rustic. If that sounds like too much, much more approachable for Western palates is the barbecue chicken. Vientiane's version is first-rate, with tender and juicy meat and subtle hints of the ginger and garlic.
The noodle soups are nicely done, too, including the silver noodle soup and the seafood noodle. Like most Thai restaurants, they come in a variety of sizes, with the smallest size for $6.99 being plenty as a full meal.
Then there's the spicy soups, which hold their own with the best of their kind in the Sacramento area, including the fully loaded tom yam gung, a spicy-hot broth with shrimp, mushrooms, cilantro, lemongrass, kaffir leaves and lime juice.
Some of the standard Thai dishes are pretty basic fare here and don't soar to the heights of the best food from this kitchen. The broccoli with beef was ordinary, and the broccoli overcooked. The caramel pork could have used more flavor, as well as a garnish and some vegetables.
Getting to know Vientiane entails trying all corners of the menu and then zeroing in on what really pops and what doesn't. There's a little bit of sifting and editing for plenty of reward.
Owner Susan Sisommout came to the United States in 1983 at age 16, eager to latch onto the abundant opportunities in this vastly different new nation of hers. Six years ago, she took over ownership of Vientiane and continued with the traditions that have long served the loyal customer base.
When I think of my food book mentioned above, I wonder why a Thai/Lao kitchen like this isn't out front and on display, showcasing the lively cooking, the steam, the smoke, the aromas, the sizzle and the intensity of the experience. Vientiane's food is lively and vivid, but the experience is too tame and uninspired. An open kitchen could do wonders. It's a missed opportunity here and at many otherwise delightful Thai places near and far.
Regular readers will recall that I am occasionally perplexed by restaurants like Vientiane that cook so well and yet promote themselves so passively.
There's nothing inviting about the place, and little has been done to overcome the challenges of this restaurant's location. People come here based on word of mouth. Some might stumble upon it.
If this underdog of a restaurant lacks curb appeal and has a generic décor that says little about the food journey to come, that's a misstep worth overlooking.
1001 Jefferson Blvd., West Sacramento
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m Monday to Saturday; dinner: 5-9 p.m.
Beverage options: Limited selection of beer and wine could be greatly improved.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
Noise level: Hushed.
Overall 2 1/2 stars (out of four)
The menu has some tremendous cooking. You just have to do a little sifting and sleuthing to find it, as not all of the food is as excellent as the best dishes. The dining experience could be more interesting and livelier, and the room could be decorated in a more personal and expressive way.
Food 3 stars
The best dishes here – the larb, stuffed chicken wings, spicy soups and the papaya – are tremendous. Some dishes are solid performers and only a few disapappointed. Brown rice is now offered along with white rice.
Service 2 stars
Low-key, informal, pleasant.
Ambience 2 stars
Isn't there an HGTV show that could come in here and make this look like the very fine restaurant it could be?
Value 4 stars
Food that ranges from good to great at prices that are pretty amazing. Most dishes are well below $10.