You might come to Viengthong for Thai food, but you'll come back for the Lao dishes.

Along with pho and teriyaki shops, Thai restaurants remain rather ubiquitous in Seattle. As do their menus. Sure, you can get good pad Thai, khao soi, and the usual curries around here, but menus lack the diversity of what you’ll find at restaurants like SriPraPhai in Queens, Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, and Langbaan in Portland, to name a few.

While waiting for more diverse Thai menus in Seattle, here’s a suggestion for the new year: Branch out to Lao food as an alternative. I recommend Viengthong to give this cuisine a first try.

Viengthong has an unassuming storefront in a nondescript strip mall in Mount Baker, just a stone’s throw from the intersection of MLK and Rainier. Step inside and you set foot into another world. It’s a homey feeling with houseplants, folding wall fans, and other decorative elements from Thailand and Laos. The menu is mainly Thai, but the server—likely to be the same woman every time you visit—can steer you to a select number of Lao specialties. (It can be hard to find authentic Lao food, as the cuisine is intertwined with Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian influences, with similar ingredients and preparations.)

Beef laap at Viengthong. Photo by Jay Friedman.

I like to start with laap, which is a salad of minced meat with green onions, fresh chili, ground rice, mint, and lime juice. You’d find water buffalo laap in Laos, but at Viengthong your choices are limited to chicken, pork, and beef. Beef is my favorite, as it contains tripe, offering textural interest. The mint is refreshing, but the chili pepper perseveres, which will make you reach for the cabbage wedges to cool your mouth.

Viengthong steak with its side of spicy sauce is a popular order, but for contrast with the beef laap, I recommend the “BBQ Chicken.” It’s terrifically tender, a result of the coconut marinade that contains garlic and black pepper. With it you want Lao-style green papaya salad (tam mak hoong), which is funkier than its Thai counterpart. This comes from padaek, the fermented fish paste that plays a prominent role in green papaya salad as well as variety of other Lao dishes, including dips and sauces.

Viengthong’s BBQ chicken plus Lao-style green papaya salad. Photo by Jay Friedman.

Order all of this, and your server will essentially insist that you get a basket of sticky rice, as such rice is the centerpiece of a Lao meal. Use it as a utensil to scoop up food and to sop up all the delicious sauces. Yes…you get to eat with your hands!

Your server will also ask how spicy you want your food. Be sure to take that question seriously. This restaurant doesn’t dumb down the food in terms of heat level. Also note that Viengthong is cash-only, with a bank conveniently located across the street should you have need for an ATM.

Note: Other Lao dishes on the menu include a Lao version of pad Thai as well as nam kao, which is deep-fried rice with coconut flakes, chili paste, lemon juice, green onions, and ground peanuts—served with vegetables.