When Kaew Saengsom was a little girl in her home province of Nakhon Phanom in far-northeastern Thailand, she paid her way through grammar school by working at a papaya salad stand. She got really good at whacking away at the hard unripe fruit with a large knife, and that’s part of the reason why the som tam she serves at her tiny Burbank strip-mall storefront, Spicy Thai Lao, is so exceptional. While most restaurant preparations of this iconic spicy-sweet-sour salad are served as nearly uniform noodlelike shreds of grated papaya, Saengsom’s is made from unevenly hacked batons of crisp green fruit. It makes for a superior texture, and I haven’t seen it prepared this way anywhere in the area besides Next Restaurant during its Tour of Thailand menu.
But that’s not the only reason it’s so good. Saengsom dresses it with typical ingredients like chiles, fish sauce, and lime juice, but also atypical ones, like a homemade fish paste called pla ra and tamarind in place of palm sugar for sweetness.
That’s reflective of the food of Nakhon Phanom, which borders Laos on the Mekong River in Thailand’s northeastern Isan region, is home to a large Lao population, and is just a short skip away from Vietnam. Though she’s Thai, Saengsom, who’s 38, grew up speaking Lao, and though her ordinary menu is dominated by all the typical Ameri-Thai standards, her Isan dishes, which she’ll prepare on request, reflect Lao and Vietnamese influences.
Chicago was once home to a Lao restaurant, Sabai-Dee, in Uptown, but its Chinese owners prepared a style of food completely different from Saengsom’s. It’s safe to say that Spicy Thai Lao—which I heard about from intrepid food explorer Dr. Peter Engler, whose advocacy for it has led to its being mobbed by LTHers—is the only restaurant in the region serving Lao-influenced food of any kind.
When Saengsom was growing up, both of her parents worked outside the home, so they taught her to cook for the family. She later helped out in an aunt’s restaurant, but when she moved to Bangkok at 18 to work as a dental assistant, she only cooked intermittently. And when she married an American and moved here, she held an office job for ten years before going back to work in a Thai restaurant, where the owner told her to tone down her seasoning. A year and a half ago she opened her own place, where she could cook however she pleased.
If southwest-suburban Burbank seems a strange place for uncompromisingly and assertively flavored Lao and Isan food, far away from the north side’s cluster of Thai favorites, consider its close proximity to the Thai Buddhist temple Wat Dhammaram, which Saengsom attends. Most of the time she’s cooking familiar dishes such as pad thai, crab Rangoon, and panang curry. Until recently she didn’t even have a printed menu for her Lao food. But when her friends from the temple come in, that’s what they want to eat.
They want teeming bowls of the breakfast soup kow tome (usually spelled “khao tom”), its meaty chicken broth slicked with red chile oil, or an incendiary Lao-style chicken tom yam sweetened with tamarind. Her milder oxtail soup is redolent of star anise and cinnamon in a way that tastes almost Vietnamese, and similarly, a number of her dishes have an herbaceous quality.
Her som tam isn’t her only extraordinary salad. The powerfully funky and spicy jackfruit salad, made from young unripe fruit, is tossed with toasted rice powder and tamarind, a preparation not unlike her equally assertive banana salad. Her larb neua, a salad made with ground beef, is almost like a Thai-flavored chili you can sop up with fingered wads of sticky rice.
She makes wonderful things with chicken, like a dense sausage studded with shreds of lemongrass and galangal root, and knobby fried chicken patties with a sweet chile sauce (the sweetest thing on her menu), not unlike the fish cakes called tod mun. Her fried chicken wings are crusted with an herbal marinade of tamarind, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, and chiles and come with a thick, peanutty dipping sauce sweet with tamarind and loaded with fish sauce. All of the chicken Saengsom serves is halal, which isn’t so much a nod to the many Muslims in the area as it’s her preference over conventional chicken, which she thinks smells bad. (There’s no pork on the menu either, which might also make Muslim customers feel more welcome, but is really just a concession to her vegetarian husband.)
Aroma plays almost an equal role to flavor in her cooking. There’s a spicy squid dish with green beans, green peppercorns, green bell peppers, and small green Thai eggplants that almost tastes grassy. To this she adds krachai root, or lesser galangal, a gingery rhizome that she says complements the spiciness and mitigates strong-smelling fishy flavors.
But Saengsom isn’t rigidly beholden to her home’s cuisine. She stuffs my new favorite egg rolls—a recipe of her own design—with cabbage, glass noodles, chiles, and an abundance of turmeric that is more in the style of southern Thai food than northeastern, a flavor echoed in her beef pad tamin, a dry-currylike preparation with meat and vegetables, almost Indian in character. She makes a mean, assertively fishy kimchi too—though it’s not on the menu. It’s something she taught herself to make after first tasting it in a Korean market.
In fact, it’s probably more appropriate to say Saengsom isn’t cooking Lao food or Isan food as much as she’s cooking her own food, food you aren’t going to taste anywhere but in her Burbank strip mall. “I cook American food, Polish food, Arabic food,” she says. “When I taste something I like, I’m gonna try to cook it.”