My friends in Thailand told me I wouldn't like the food in Laos. Thai food was better they said; Laotian dishes were bland and couldn't compare to the flavorful, fiery cuisine of Isaan, just over the Mekong River. Not knowing any better, I trusted them: these same people had led me to some of my favorite meals ever. And so, as I boarded the overnight train from Bangkok's Hua Lamphong station, I lowered my expectations. Maybe my first trip to the Lao People's Democratic Republic would be a complete bust.
Fortunately, my friends were wrong. Very wrong, in fact. Eating my way through Vientiane while on assignment for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, I discovered charming restaurants serving intriguing national dishes (Lao Kitchen), vendors hawking delicious street food (I'm still a sucker for warm, sugary roti), and, to my surprise, a Belgian beer bar, too (Chokdee Cafe). My favorite find however, might have been an unassuming little family-run business in Phiawat Village called Kung's Cafe.
I arrived around 1pm, just as the lunchtime regulars were returning to work. Choosing a table close to an oscillating fan, I ordered ginger chicken with rice, iced coffee with coconut milk to combat the heat, and to satisfy my curiosity, the mango sticky rice pancake. Dense, chewy, and expertly browned, the large doughy envelope arrived curled around a juicy chunk of fresh tropical fruit and drizzled with sweet Laos honey. Big enough to share and good enough for seconds, Kung's sticky rice pancake was the highlight of my last day in Vientiane. I raved about it to my Thai friends as soon as I got back to Bangkok.