I’ve probably googled some variation on the phrase “Lao food NYC” at least 20 times since moving to New York… and yes, I might be crazy and obsessive. But more importantly, I came up empty every time.
This upsets me. It also upsets the amazing Robert Sietsema. It upsets me even more when I think about the fact that Lao food can be found in several other cities in the United States, including San Diego, Syracuse, Madison, and Des Moines.
Yes, Des Moines has a Lao restaurant. New York City does not. That’s tragic, unless you happen to live in Des Moines. (Hi, Mom.)
I was about to beg Mom to FedEx some Lao food from Des Moines, but then a friendly fellow named Jay Z (who runs a very interesting startup called DishEnvy) stumbled upon my food blog, and emailed me with a rumor that the owners of Mangez Avec Moi were from Laos.
Thank you, Jay Z. Mangez Avec Moi’s owners are indeed from Laos, even though the menu is unabashedly “pan-Asian,” without even the slightest hint of Lao-ness. Luckily, Mangez Avec Moi’s chef, a lovely lady named Jeannie, was willing to prepare a special Lao banquet for a group of us, as long as we gave her a week’s notice to find the ingredients.
I asked Chef Jeannie to prepare Lao food the way she likes it—whatever that may mean. We didn’t discuss specific dishes or prices beforehand—we just made an appointment for 14 of us to eat whatever Jeannie wanted to prepare, at whatever price she wanted to charge.
And that worked perfectly.
When our group of 14 (including one of my favorite NYC international food bloggers, a talented journalist from an immigration website, and a brilliant “classical violinist gone wrong”) sat down, the food started coming at us in one huge, crunchy tsunami. Before we had a chance to settle in, our table was loaded with platters of food: homemade Lao sausage, similar to a good Andouille; surprisingly tender fingers of dried, spiced beef; spicy chunks of fried chicken; and a hot pepper and anchovy paste that went particularly well with the fried chicken. As with most Lao meals, our table was also adorned with bowls of sticky rice and tons of raw vegetables, including some particularly tasty longbeans and addictive, crunchy, round eggplants.
But wait, there’s more. We were treated to a no-holds-barred papaya salad, with tomatoes, longbeans, chicharron (fried pork rinds, which added a salty crunch to the salad), and some incredibly intense hot peppers; only a few of us were capsaicin-addicted enough to embrace the stuff. I loved it, but my poor fiancé could only handle one strand of shredded papaya at a time, and only if she chased it with a large swallow of Beerlao Dark… which, for the record, is pretty stellar stuff.
Wait, it gets even better. We ate a delicious rendition of laab, arguably the national dish of Laos: grilled chicken (including chicken hearts and kidneys), finely diced with mint, garlic, scallions, and galangal (a tasty ginger relative). The laab was the source of some wonderful unintentional post-meal comedy: several of my pals thought that Chef Jeannie had called it “lamb” instead of “laab.” One diner was particularly horrified when I told her that the dish contained hearts and kidneys. Hurray!
And then there was my personal favorite, a moist mushroom-spinach-longbean-chicken sauté called or. Part of the magic seemed to be the combination of two types of mushrooms with fresh greens, but most of the brilliance came from the blend of dill and hot peppers, which are two of my favorite seasonings on any continent. Both seasonings in one dish? I was in heaven.
And somehow, we had room for dessert after all of that. We shared some excellent plates of sliced mango with sticky rice, covered in a thickened coconut milk with a drizzle of sesame seeds. I happily ate a bite, and then returned to devouring as much or as I could fit into my gullet.
We would have adored Chef Jeannie simply for the food alone, but we all fell madly in love with her when she spent most of the night at our table, telling us about Lao food and culture. She explained that Lao meals never include multiple courses—everything is eaten at the same time, and Lao diners typically eat with their hands, scooping the rest of the goodies with fistfuls of sticky rice. Interestingly, Lao women traditionally eat nothing but sticky rice, grilled galangal, and hot water for a month after childbirth; apparently, this regimen radically improves post-partum recovery. Fascinating, no?
In addition providing amazing food and intriguing cultural insights, Chef Jeannie was simply a quote machine: “After you eat McDonald’s hamburgers, your belly feels loose. Eat sticky rice, and your belly feels tight, you’re good for 7 or 10 hours.” “Everything we make is with raw vegetables, and there’s lots of herbs in the food. If you’re not used to it, you’ll blow lots of air afterward,” she said, gesturing toward her hindquarters. We could have listened to her all night. (Her thoughts on food, I mean—not the air.)
Our love for our Lao chef didn’t even fade when the bill arrived. We ended up paying an incredibly reasonable $27 per person, and that price included Lao beer and an extra-fat tip for our waiter. And several of us took home leftovers—I very happily ate my beloved or for two more meals.
I have no idea if many of my pals “blew air” afterward, as Chef Jeannie threatened. But if they did, it was surely worth the stench.
Huge thanks to Jay Zygmunt for tipping us off to the secret Lao-ness of Mangez Avec Moi. For a hot time, check out his website at www.dishenvy.com, or follow DishEnvy on twitter. For a not-so-hot time, follow United Nations of Food on twitter.
Mangez Avec Moi (“pan-Asian” cuisine; Lao food served with advance notice only)
71-73 West Broadway
Subway: Chambers Street (1, 2, 3, A, C trains)