The original owner of Vientiane moved down to the other end of the little strip mall on Marion Street and opened Boun's, where he offers a relatively short list of pan-Asian dishes. Vientiane's new owner has kept to the restaurant's original commitment by continuing to serve mostly Lao-Thai specialties.
Which, come to think of it, is a little ironic since -- although the cooks are Thai -- the new owner is Chinese. The decor in this compact little room is still simple, but cosier than I remember from several years ago, softened by paintings and artifacts (Laotian or Thai, I assume) on the walls. It seems to be wildly popular too -- jam-packed on one visit, with more customers waiting at the door.
Tasty, well-prepared food is probably one reason, and affordable prices don't hurt either (most main courses cost from $8.95 to $11.95), or servers who are friendly and affable, even when rushed.
Probably only true cognoscenti will know which dishes are Laotian, and which Thai, but there's no doubt about the tom kao peak soup, since the menu tells you that it's a Lao soup. This is marvellous, deep-down comfort food, a rich chicken broth filled with slippery house-made rice noodles, seasoned with lime juice, roasted garlic and chilies, and floating slices of tender white chicken. It is much milder than the description might suggest, and although the scent of garlic hits your nostrils as soon as the bowl hits the table, the total effect is surprisingly mellow. (Note: If you don't finish the soup in the restaurant, there's no point in taking what's left of it home since the noodles tend to absorb the broth, and turn into a kind of mush.)
There are some dishes that I don't remember from the past, and haven't seen on other menus. Among them, a salad of nicely chewy steamed calamari, with shreds of veggies and rice vermicelli in a dressing that packs a bit of a kick. Another is bunseo -- obviously a relative of the Vietnamese banh xeo, only instead of a paper-thin rice flour pancake this one uses eggs, which make it thicker and less crisp than banh xeo -- and is filled with wee bits of chopped pork only, instead of the shrimp I've usually found in its Vietnamese cousin.
Pad Thai turns up on every Thai menu, but this is one of the better versions, made with seductively slurpy rice vermicelli and free of the frequent flaw of gumminess. Although it seemed too sweet at first taste, when mixed with the accompanying crunchy bean sprouts it changed character and became quite addictive.
I also liked two fish entrees: Number 9, which turned out to be sweet-fleshed basa stir fried with the usual trinity of celery, broccoli and carrots in a subtle sweet and sour sauce; and Number 10, a coconut creamy, basil-spiked red curry with a stir-fry of bamboo shoots, celery, carrots and red peppers, and served over slices of cobbler (a kind of catfish).
Although I prefer my matsaman curry with beef, this version with chicken and potatoes was also delicious, rich with coconut milk, and crunchy with a scattering of roasted peanuts. Panang beef curry with peas and lime leaves was also good -- more saucy than soupy, and relatively mild, in a nice, comforting hue of brown.
On the other hand, it was hard to know what to make of the green curry with bits of chicken (but not many) and vegetables (mostly broccoli). It tasted nice enough, albeit a tad tame, but was so unnaturally, so intensely green one had to suspect food colouring -- so strong it also dyed the shrimp we'd added to our order, and what little chicken there was, rendering them almost invisible in that sea of green.
If sweet and sour chicken balls sound like a generic Chinese dish that's because it is, right down to the slices of pineapple, red and green peppers and cucumbers in a pleasant, non-cloying sauce, and popular (my Asian maven tells me) in Thailand too. Skewered shrimp -- big, juicy ones -- were also good, and also tasted Chinese, coated thickly in what tasted like mostly hoisin sauce, and garnished with heaps of veggies, red peppers, zucchini and mushrooms among them.
Not everything works here. Certainly not the lackluster laap (a.k.a. larb, or laab), which is chopped beef mixed with crushed roasted rice (chicken or pork are alternatives) seasoned with fish sauce and lime juice and a number of spices, but not enough of any of them to give this normally fiery dish any character. Rice rolls were bland too, filled minimally with chicken and shrimp, but mostly, overwhelming, with shredded lettuce.
When it comes to spicing in general, a degree of three -- although it varied from dish to dish -- was hot enough for me. With the exception, perhaps, of the green papaya salad, which is invariably incendiary (i.e. well above three) no matter how, or where you order it. Although in this case, incendiary was all it was, with no nuances of flavour, just a perfunctory, stripped-down version with only peanuts for company -- no dried shrimp, and only a few skinny shreds of red peppers and tomatoes.
For dessert there's a banana/rice cake steamed in a banana leaf -- an intriguing, if rather solid affair that was good, and would have been even better with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
208 Marion Street, 235-1576
Three and a half stars