Laos' porous borders—from both directions along the Mekong River—have left its cuisine's borders equally nebulous. The sticky rice, larb and green papaya salad that originated in Laos have become known here as Thai foods, just as Ukrainian borscht is thought to be Russian or Ashkenazi. And so much at new Sellwood Lao food cart Luang Prabang will look familiar to eaters of the Isan and Chiang Mai Thai cuisines that have become Portland currency.
But a few dishes at this husband-and-wife operation are rare on local menus, in particular a Xin beef dish ($9) made with Lao beef jerky, a caramelized, marinated, flash-fried coriander beef that can serve as a meat spoon for other flavors. At Luang Prabang, it's ground for rice and pickled carrots, and it's a lovely, chewy snack that the cart recommends with its mega-plate of spicy, somewhat soupy green papaya salad ($7) marinated in crab sauce—a flavor that's distinct from more familiar fish sauce.
The mook pha ($9.50) is gift-wrapped comfort fare, a coconut-milk salmon dish steamed inside a banana leaf with basil, green onion, bell pepper, lemongrass and dill that have been, according to the menu, "smushed to a pulp." It's herbal but not spicy, thick with vegetable flavor and, in the words of my dining companion, "like something my Jewish grandma would make." The chef said she prefers to eat the chicken version of the dish atop rice, with a pile of chili sauce—but by itself the salmon dish was a bit like a blanket and a sucked thumb.
Always finish with the colorful mango dessert over black rice ($4). Even in desserts, the Thai and Lao temper sweetness with bitterness, just as they temper heat with sour acidity, not-so-gently blurring the lines between moderation and excess.
- Order this: Dream salmon (mook pha), Xin beef, mango black rice.
EAT: Luang Prabang, Southeast 13th Avenue and Lexington Street. 11 am-7 pm Monday-Friday, 11 am-8 pm Saturday, noon-5:30 pm Sunday.