The landlocked nation of Laos is known as the Land of a Million Elephants, so it's little wonder that there is a heavy pachyderm theme at Cafe de Laos.
A dozen elephants carved on a single piece of wood meander through colorful arrangements of silk orchids in the front window. A regal elephant presides over a shrine laden with citrus and incense smoldering near the filigreed wooden screen in the foyer. Elephants also shimmer from a silvery sequined tapestry that hangs over the mahogany-colored dining room, lending this cafe a warm Southeast Asian glint.
Adventure diners have come to expect the exotic on Washington Avenue in the last few years as strip malls around the Italian Market have blossomed with Vietnamese grocers, pho halls, bakeries, and the occasional Mexican spot. But Cafe de Laos, set in an 11th Street storefront just south of Washington, is the first to offer Thai or Laotian food.
Slender Laos wraps around the northeastern border of Thailand, so it's not surprising that the two cuisines are kindred spirits, highly spiced and fragrant with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, curry and fried shallots. But Laotian cooking shies away from Thai sweet coconut milk in its savory curries. It also favors unsweetened sticky rice over Thailand's fluffier jasmine grains.
The sticky rice comes in individual woven baskets at Cafe de Laos, and as I pinched off a clump of warm grains, I found their firm chew and bamboo-scented flavor a perfect counterpoint to the sour, spicy Laotian salads that highlight the menu.
My favorites were the laabs - salads of ground chicken, pork, beef or duck - dressed in a limey Asian vinaigrette that vibrated with fresh mint and dried chiles and a dusting of roasted rice powder that gave each mouthful a toasty crunch.
The Laotian hors d'oeuvres, a pinwheel platter of cool salads and grilled Lao meats, offered a wide selection of other flavors. The pile of shredded green papaya salad in the center was electric with tangy fish sauce and chile heat. A variation on the side incorporated springy white ribbons of shredded preserved pork, adding an addictively buoyant texture.
Sun-dried jerky is another Lao specialty, and the platter's oven-dried versions were great. The strips of pork and beef cured in sweet pineapple juice are slowly baked until chewy but not too dry.
Another favorite was the sai krong, golf-ball-size grilled sausages filled with pork and rice and redolent of fresh lemongrass. They are popular in Laos and in the northeastern region of Thailand known as Issan.
Cafe de Laos owner Wansawang "Michael" Raethong was born in Bangkok, but says his family is from the north, so he grew up eating Laotian food. And with South Philadelphia becoming the home base for a growing Laotian population that outnumbers the region's Thais, it seemed a niche waiting to be filled.
As it turned out, most of Raethong's customers are Americans on the prowl for new flavors, but it's a crowd he's well suited to please. Raethong, who opened Lemongrass in West Philadelphia and still owns Royal Thai Orchid in Frazer, offers plenty of more familiar Thai dishes at Cafe de Laos, as well as a few fusion creations with corny names - "fantasy duck," "sweet surrender."
Personally, I'd rather Cafe de Laos did a better job keeping its more authentic fare in stock. I wanted to try the char-grilled ox liver with chile sauce, but it was sold out. The whole pomfret? Out. Banana-leaf-steamed snakehead fish? Out. Rack of lamb au Siam? Pffft.
The service was slightly unreliable, too, though I was pleased to see that the curt waitress who served our first dinner with a scowl had been replaced by a pleasant server with genuine enthusiasm.
And when presented with the fantasy duck, I had to admit it wasn't bad. It was lean, tender and crisp, and came with a tasty chu chee red curry sweetened with pineapple and creamed with coconut milk.
Another special keyed to non-Asian diners, "heavenly fish," brought a delicately fried Chilean sea bass fillet stuffed with crab and napped with tangy tamarind sauce. The mushy salmon dumplings, though, deserved a pass.
We fared reasonably well with many of the more traditional Thai favorites. The tom kha gai (chicken soup) had a bright undercurrent of lime that cut the richness of its coconut milk-enriched broth. I also loved the coconut-free tom yum soup's mean sour and salty streak.
The pad thai was decent. But the Thai hors d'oeuvres were less compelling than the Laotian version. The chicken satay was a tad bland, the spring rolls too greasy, and the steamed rice crepes filled with minced chicken and turnips too doughy.
I had better luck with the mieng kham, which brought an assortment of fresh ingredients - toasted coconut chips, dried shrimp, raw chiles and ginger - that offered a thrilling collision of bright flavors and textures rolled inside an ivy-shaped chapoo leaf and dipped in sweet plum dressing.
The pomelo shrimp salad was simply good shrimp cocktail with a Thai twist, pairing big shrimp and pine-cone-shaped calamari with the grapefruit-like fruit and toasted coconut.
Cafe de Laos makes a range of classic Thai curries, and some, such as the massaman, were downright bland. Even dishes marked on the menu with the double chile pepper icon barely registered a flicker.
The most distinctive was the kaeng kee lek, a creamy green curry given an intriguing edge by a hint of salt cod and fistfuls of kee lek, gently bitter greens that resemble delicate bay leaves. The naem sod, another variation on the Laotian ground-chicken salad, was garnished with peanuts and marvelous coral-shaped "white angel" mushrooms soaked in pungently gingered marinade.
If I had to choose a favorite entree, though, it would be the fried whole fish, especially the spectacular two-pound red snapper that arrived on my plate flexed, as if fried in mid-swim, and showered with spicy garlic sauce mellowed by a splash of chicken stock.
After so much sticky rice with the rest of my meal, the sweetened version didn't appeal to me for dessert. But Cafe de Laos churns its own coconut and mango ice creams. They were the perfect finish to cool the spice.