Sacramento may have nearly 40 Thai restaurants, but only a few serve authentic Lao food. Over time, with the significant immigration that has occurred between the country of Laos and northern Thailand, the people of the two countries have come to share similar diets, with subtle differences. If it’s authentic Lao cuisine you’re after, the place to begin is Vientiane in West Sacramento.
The menu at Vientiane (1001 Jefferson Boulevard) contains both Thai and Lao dishes, many of which are similar to each other. However, the cuisine of Laos is more earthy and less delicate than Thai food, perhaps due to the traditionally agricultural background of the Lao people. The co-owner of the restaurant, Susan Sisommout, explains that many Thai dishes call for a small amount of sugar whereas the Lao version omits this extra sweetness.
The main staple starch in Laos is sticky rice, which comes served in a bamboo basket and should be eaten with your hands. Often this rice is served alongside green papaya salad, or “som tum”. Susan explains that Vientiane serves both Thai and Lao versions of papaya salad: the Thai version uses fish sauce while the Lao version uses a fermented fish sauce with a much bolder flavor and smell.
Another classic Lao dish is larb, a cold salad of ground cooked meat (often pork or chicken), lime, fresh herbs, chilis, and fish sauce. Koa Mee noodles are the Lao version of pad thai noodles, ground pork standing in for shrimp or sliced chicken. Try the boldly seasoned Lao sausage, or the garlic quail, coated in a sweet-and-savory, addictive sauce.
Vientiane won the honor of an award for “Best Spring Roll” from Sacramento magazine last year with their unique version of this popular appetizer. This fresh version is nothing like the heavy, deep-fried style spring roll that may come to mind. Instead, it consists of lettuce, rice noodles and fresh herbs wrapped inside soft rice paper wrappers, and served with a lemon dipping sauce. Famous Sacramento chef Rick Mahan, owner of the Waterboy and Onespeed, has admitted to being a big fan of the Stuffed Chicken Wing appetizer.
The Sisommout family purchased Vientiane in 2006 from another family who also served Thai/Lao food. Husband and wife, along with their two sons, run the entire operation themselves. Originally, Vientiane (named for the capital of Laos) was located on West Capitol Avenue, but when their lease ended 4 years ago, the family leased a new location right next to the Highway 50 on-ramp on Jefferson Boulevard. Many high-profile locals like West Sacramento mayor Christopher Cabaldon take advantage of the reasonable lunch plates, and the owners have many customer friends who have been patronizing their business for years.
Prior to owning Vientiane, the owners worked in retail and had no restaurant experience. Susan Sisommout credits her husband with having the idea to open a restaurant, and says that the dishes they serve are based on the dishes they prepared and served at home when she and her family lived in Laos. Like many others, her family escaped violence in Laos and came to America from a North Thailand refugee camp in 1983. After living in Albuquerque, NM for two years, her family settled in the Sacramento area and mutual friends introduced she and her husband to each other. Susan reflects that running a restaurant can be difficult; “I haven’t taken a vacation in 5 years,” she admits. But hopefully with support from our community, this restaurant will continue introducing locals to the flavors of their home country for a long time to come.