US Thai Cafe almost satisfies my craving for Laotian food

After returning from a trip to Southeast Asia, my first order of business was to ask if anyone knew of a place where you could get Laotian food in this city. In the meantime, I decided to satiate my craving with Thai food, since Laotian cuisine is basically Thai done lighter and splashed with a healthy dose of Vietnamese.

Particularly when the owner of the Thai food is from Laos.

Last night I met a friend at US Thai Cafe, whose owner, Ma Vue, is Laotian and whose chef cooked his way through restaurants in Thailand before coming to the States.

Traveling around Indochina had taught me that curry isn't the best indicator of how good an Asian kitchen can be, and I've had plenty of palatable curries at Thai restaurants in this country that otherwise fall short. So we chose a green papaya salad and a fried rice, because they're useful measuring sticks, simple dishes too often screwed up.

Not at US Thai, though. A nest of firm, crisp juliennes of green papaya was studded with juicy halves of cherry tomato and snappy green beans, coated with sweet, earthy fish sauce and made light and refreshing with plenty of tart lime. The salad was loaded up with hot red chiles because we'd asked for it to be made spicy, yet all the distinct flavors held their own against the heat.

But while the salad was good, the rice blew me away. Fried rice is ubiquitous in Asia, and done differently everywhere. It's definitely a leftover dish, a way to use day-old rice and odds and ends that get tossed into a well-seasoned wok. In Asia, the dish is never greasy, usually light, often a surprise. In the States, though, it's nearly impossible to find decent fried rice, since the oily, soy sauce-flavored stuff of alleged Chinese-American food has spilled over into other cuisines.

The traditional Thai version employs jasmine rice, is doused in a mix of fish sauce and red chiles, and is plated with cucumbers. US Thai's rendition was right on the money. Light, dry and textured by that seasoned wok, with the plump pink prawns we'd chosen as a protein and slices of carrot and sweet onion mixed in, the rice offered a healthy burn, mitigated by a squeeze of lime. Perfect.

Until I find great Laotian food in the area, US Thai should be able to tide me over.

Fair warning: Hot here means hot. I left most of the green papaya salad on the table because I feared that my digestive tract was about to spontaneously combust or melt under the intense spice I was subjecting it to. That was a crushing blow to my ego: I've only encountered one other dish I deemed too hot to finish.

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