Lao City Thai is a narrow space at the top of Ultimo Road, an area undergoing some large building works which has the potential to shift that area of Haymarket up a notch. There's a takeaway bain marie of love at the front with some standard Thai fare which gave Shawn and I the initial impression this place was just another unimpressive Thai joint. The name of the place however had the word Lao in it - could it offer something more than what we first thought?
One very cold day, I decided a to go in and take a punt. Looking through the menu, I pick out the soups as it's cold and I need something hot and warm. There's a few standard Thai soups and noodle soups, but then there's a small list of three written in Thai a the top of the page. Underneath is a picture of one of the mysterious soups - I want that one.
I ask the waitress about the soup and she shakes her head and hand in a no gesture. "No, you don't want that one, very spicy". I feel like something is being hidden from me, something delicious that I'm being forbidden.
Fuschia Dunlop outlines the problems around western customers not liking the 'strange' food in eastern restaurants with great nuance in her article published in 'Lucky Peach' on London's Chinatown. Food sent back or uneaten, customers complaining about getting not quite what they expected and some refusing to pay all drive restaurants to cook and offer what they know will sell to the general public. For us at Street Food, a mysterious dish draws us in like a Labrador to a roast chicken, not stopping until we get a bite. We've started to learn Chinese and Japanese characters to get to more of these wonderful secret dishes. It's early days but in Lara Croft or Indiana Jones style we know we'll find some treasure.
#42 - Mystery dish 1 - $10.90.
Eventually the soup arrives. It's a small bowl, filled with pieces of chicken, fragrant chopped lime leaves, dill and greens, and a three small soft potent chillies to slowly cut into the broth and add heat to your liking. The broth is dark, closer to a boat noodle soup flavour while the herbs in it remind me of the ones in Vietnamese bun cha ca. The chicken is small thigh pieces, cut into bite size portions and soft to the bite. No noodles, order a small serve of steamed rice to make it a more filling meal and to lighten some of the heat between spoonfuls. There's a good enough chilli heat, not the head blowing experience I was expecting so I'm sipping with a thankful grace. I'm so happy with this soup, it's exactly what I wanted but didn't know it.
I then made Mr Shawn go in and try it. This sparks an obsession for us to try all of the non English dishes on (and off) the menu.
#43 - Mystery dish 2- Lao Soup with fish (or pork or beef) - $10.90. We take another shot at the other mystery soups. No 43 has a light funky note to it, we guess from a bit of fermented fish or soybean. The broth is lighter, you don't taste the mysterious smellorific substance in it. We were recommended to try it with fish and the choice was perfect for the flavour of the soup.
#44 or #45 - Mystery dish 3 - Soup with bamboo shoots and mushrooms - $9.90. The super nice lady explained that dishes 44 and 45 were similar, the difference being bamboo and mushroom, which we got both of, so we are not sure which dish we actually ordered. This has the lovely herby dill flavours of #42 with various types of mushrooms and veggies.
We ask for rice and the nice lady suggests sticky rice, why not? $3.The bamboo pots they are served in are a symbol of the restaurant, and there's always something fun about lifting the lid and unwrapping the plastic before getting stuck into the rice inside.
Once we got through the non English items, we hit up some other interesting looking menu items.
Stir fried fresh Siam watercress - $9.90. Water spinach stir fried with some oyster sauce and garlic. Wonderful. We often get a veggie dish or a salad to break up the heat or the grease, depending on what else we've ordered.
Stir fried century egg - $13.90. We ordered this dish by name and not image, imagining a sprinkle of chopped up century eggs among the chicken mince, chilli and basil. What we got was a well cooked not-so-hot larb surrounded with a garland of quartered deep fried century eggs, kind of similar to son-in-law eggs. Frying the century eggs mellowed the strong flavour but kept the delicate jelly like texture inside. The crisp basil leaves mixed into each bite added another layer of flavour. There's something simply wonderful about deep fried, crisp herbs that really brings out their flavours.
Kham Moo - $13.90. Hunks of tender pork leg in a dark sweet thin sauce with Chinese broccoli and a boiled googie egg for luck. Mr Shawn doesn't apologise for picking the bowl up and drinking the remaining sauce. He is a swine and a buffoon.
Tom zab (pork) - $9.90. A Lao soup, so fresh and really super spicy, it's like a larb soup. The hit of the spice was massive but it also had a wonderful warm roasted flavour.
The guay jub ($9.90) is a mild sweet dark pork soup with flat noodle, nice hunks of pork belly and a half soft egg. A good one if you don't want to hit the chilli too hard.
Beef noodle soup - $8.50. Otherwise known as beef noodle soup, a sweet beefy broth with some beef strips, beef balls, thin noodles and veggies. Yippee.
Squid larb - $13.90. Super spicy salad with chili. squid, pork mince, shallot, red onion, coriander, lime juice and fish sauce. This had the same roasted chilli flavour that settles into your stomach with a warming glow. The slices of cabbage add some coolness to the heat.
Moo-Young - Marinated bbq pork - $10.90. The smoke flavoured BBQ pork was tender and made a great contrast to the more fire filled larb.
There's lots of great stick and snack food. BBQ octopus - $3 per stick.
Lao Sausages (sour or spiced) - $10.90. These tiny wonders were similar to the ones we got from Marrickville. The sour ones were only lightly so. Savour the crisp crunchy ends bits.
Grilled pork ball - $2 per stick. Quite plain in flavour, dunk them in the sweet chilli.
Deep fried tofu - $1.80 per piece.
We've been here several times and there is still plenty of stuff we're keen to try. We noticed Thai customers often ordering dishes not on the menu, in fact many don't even look at a menu. Lots of the 'not on the menu dishes' are on this poster at the entrance. We'll be back.
Lao City Thai is at Shop 10, 37 Ultimo Road Haymarket. Ph 9212 1080.