>> Kop Jai Lai | Eat the World Los Angeles

Thursday 28 March 2019

Kop Jai Lai

๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ฆ LAOS

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was updated on 31 December 2020 to include new information about a new visit. An updated version (08 December 2023) is available as part of the Historical section of our Substack page. Check that out here:
While Los Angeles can claim a lot of bests and mosts, it unfortunately ranks a stunning fifth (or fourth depending on the method of counting) in the state of California in the amount of residents that are Lao. This is easy to see in practice as well since there are so few places to find the cuisine, and those there are almost always pair it with the availability of Thai food.

But even though this Mission Hills restaurant does make those Thai concessions, their exterior (as seen above) is unapologetically Lao. In addition to "Lao Restaurant," which itself satisfying since Lao chefs often include an invitation to seekers of Thai on the outside, the name is one of the first you learn when studying Lao: "Thank you very much."

Do not be surprised by the "Under new management/Grand opening" sign hanging from the awning, it has been around for quite some time and the food and management have been steadily good since the spot was opened by the Vientiane-born chef and owner in May of last year.

The large two-sided menu provides quite a few options, but for now let's pass over the Thai (and even some Chinese on the back, possibly held over from the menu of Hong Kee, which lived here for many years) portion and focus on the brief list of "Lao Specialties" that is really where the kitchen shines.

One delicious difference worth investigating is the tam mak hoong ($9, above), a Lao-style papaya salad that relies on fish sauce and salty crab to do most of the work. Even when requested at middle of the road spice levels, this dish comes out ready to make your eyes water, and Lao eaters would have it no other way. The pungency of the main ingredients plays very well against the chilies, limes and garlic, making for complex bites that go many ways besides heat.

Nem khao tod ($11, above) is another Lao classic that is difficult to pass up on any menu it is offered. Within the fried rice are balls of pounded rice that are mixed with spicy red curry paste and deep-fried to make slightly crispy and chewy. Hunks of sour fermented sausage rounds out the flavor profile.

For somewhat of a breather from an otherwise spicy meal, try the khao piak ($8, below), a chicken soup with long, chewy noodles they make in house. The broth is rich but subtle, and begs you to use the condiment caddy that is ubiquitous in Southeast Asia but sometimes not around when you need it in Los Angeles. Those four fried goodies on top? Those are crisp pork belly cubes added for good measure.

As your stomach fills up, the sounds from next door Paul's Tavern and its rowdy customers fills the dining room more and more as the night progresses. Sit back in your blue and green booth and enjoy some of the imported tapestries on the bright red wall before going into a food coma painted with primary colors. Something tells me Paul's does not serve many options for digestifs, so you will have to look elsewhere for that.

On follow-up visits for takeout in 2020, that fantastic nem khao tod was a favorite, but just at the very end of the year the khao poon pla ($10.95, below) was first sampled. This red curry soup with vermicelli is prepared just right, with ground tilapia and a spread of crisp vegetables to add some crunch texture to bites.

The all-important condiment caddy.

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