Lao Bar kicks it up a notch in Capitol Hill
by Jay Friedman
June 29, 2018
In touting Lao food as an alternative to the ubiquitous Thai restaurants in Seattle, I recently wrote a report about Viengthong, an institution in Mount Baker. Now there’s a new player in this arena: Lao Bar Restaurant in Capitol Hill. Lao Bar is tucked in the back of the Broadway Alley mall (home of Americana, Hana Sushi Bar, and Kimchi Bistro), so you’ll have to seek it out. Once you find it, you’ll discover a small bar and cozy dining room done with a good sense of design. Not surprising, as owner Carrie Bowen is a designer by day before turning restaurant hostess by night. Her sister, Oula Sakounthong, heads the kitchen.
Like Viengthong, Lao Bar serves both Thai and Lao dishes. Bowen concedes that the menu must include some non-Lao dishes to appeal to the sometimes-cautious Capitol Hill crowds, but she is committed to promoting her native cuisine. “I always try to introduce a new Lao dish to my customers,” she says, pointing to a board promoting the current special: Lao beef jerky.
For a Capitol Hill restaurant, prices are remarkably reasonable. Most of the main dishes, including soups and noodles, hover around the $10 mark. But Bowen recommends getting a number of small plates for sharing. Happy hour, which runs from 4:30-6:30 and again from 9-close (closing time can be quite late), offers lots of bites for $4. Among the best are the Lao street skewers. Choose from chicken satay with peanut sauce, beef meatballs with sweet and sour sauce, fish balls with sweet and sour sauce, shrimp with pineapple, or lemongrass pork—my personal favorite.
On the regular menu, the “sizzling Lao wings” are a winner, cooked three times to a compelling crispness. Also in the crisp department is nam khao. This is a Lao salad of deep-fried rice balls with pork sausage, peanuts, grated coconut, green onion, mint, cilantro, and lime. Put the rice and assorted herbs into lettuce leaves and dip the resulting wrap in a choice of dipping sauces.
If it’s a Lao meal, you’re likely to have a basket of sticky rice and some papaya salad, complete with crab shells as a sign of authenticity. Also authentic is padaek, the fermented fish paste that adds its funkiness to the papaya salad. Be aware that spice levels accelerate quickly. Bowen says one of the secrets of the house-made bang bang sauce is that the Thai chili peppers are meticulously sourced from Mekong Market (not far from Viengthong restaurant), “the only place to get them truly fresh and spicy.” No argument there. That bang bang sauce is addictive and will leave your tongue tingling all night.