News & Reviews
Chiles, Curry, & Chitterlings
Lao-Thai Kitchen serves the usual Solano Thai fare, but adds a soul-food twist.
Earl Daniel could charm the growl out of a Rottweiler. He could charm the tar off a highway. Why, in a three-way charm contest against Hugh Grant and George Hamilton, I know who I'd wager on. And his wife, Kham, makes a mean larb.
Two friends brought me to Lao-Thai Kitchen a few weeks after they strolled down Solano Avenue and stopped to look through the windows of the tiny storefront. They peered into a room that could have been one of the back rooms from the King and I set, with walls clad floor to ceiling in Thai-palace carved woods and ornate gilt starbursts ringing 1960s-era chandeliers. Set into the walls were lit boxes showcasing silver chopsticks and teapots, and the cash-register station was framed like a small beach hut.
Then they spotted, taped to the window, the soul-food menu. Ribs: $8.95. Hot links: $8.95. Sides: black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and sweet potatoes.
According to Earl, he and the missus took over the former Sabuy Sabuy space 21 months ago as a retirement project. A seven-day-a-week one. "My wife wanted something to do," he says, "because she wasn't going to look at me 24 hours a day. Of course, I fought like dragging a cat over a carpet."
Neither of them went into the biz completely blind -- Earl used to run a barbecue place in Bay Point and Kham had cooked for years. The Daniels named their restaurant "Kitchen," Earl adds, because they didn't want it to be a pinkies-up kind of joint, but a place where people could feel like they were a guest in someone's dining room. After year one, Earl walked up and down Solano and decided Albany needed a soul-food restaurant, too, so he taught Kham his family recipes and they posted the additional menu on the front.
Culinary fusion aside, Lao-Thai Kitchen is basically a neighborhood Thai restaurant. They do a decent takeout business, and on a weekend night the room fills up about halfway, mostly folks who have walked from home. Between Thep-Naaree, Sweet Basil, Ruen Pair, Bua Luang, Sea Mi, the newly arrived Krung Thep, and a few others whose names I've forgotten, the competition between the neighborhood's Thai restaurants is fierce. I'm surprised the restaurateurs haven't started cold-calling locals or walking door-to-door with free samples.
Lao-Thai Kitchen's Thai food matches but doesn't exceed the standards set by its competitors. But how can you not love a restaurant that serves collard greens and pad kee mao? Where the owner hangs out tableside swapping stories, sharing NASCAR trivia, and triple-checking to make sure the kitchen got the spicing right?
In fact, Earl is a little wary of his wife's predilection for chiles. "They'll grind up five habaneros and put 'em in there," he told our table one night after we requested our food spicy. "You don't want Lao spicy." On another night, right before we ordered, an older couple across the room mentioned to Earl that they found their som tum a little too hot. Earl wasn't going to take chances with us. "I'm going to tell my wife just a little spicy," he insisted when we ordered the same dish, even as I protested that I didn't want it mild, either. Sure enough, it took four bites to feel some of that old tingle coming on, and the aroma and kick of more chiles would have fleshed out the pungent fish sauce and lime dressing on the shredded green papaya.
The som tum is one of the dishes that specifically mentions Kham's Laotian eritage. Another salad common throughout northern Thailand and Laos is larb, ground meat (pork, chicken, beef, duck) tossed with onions, mint, and toasted rice powder. On Earl's recommendation we tried the beef, and Kham didn't stint with the lime and chiles here, setting off most of the neurons north of my shoulders. Exactly what I was hoping for.
With the exception of a tom kha soup in which only the natural sweetness of coconut milk softened the double kick of lime juice and aromatics, Kham's Thai food skews farang-friendly sweet. Sometimes, as with an off-menu pumpkin curry, the rich coconut-milk curry is a great counterbalance to the kicky salads. But when you make a meal of the kang dang (red curry) and the pad prik pow talay, scallops, shrimp, and squid stir-fried with vegetables and sweet chile paste, the sugar rush can get a little intense.
That's why every meal I eat there again will revolve around the Lao BBQ pork. When I first nibbled on one of the pounded cutlets, its marinade also seemed sweet. So I dipped a baby spoon into an egg cup of clear brown sauce -- with red chile flakes and ground, toasted mung beans floating on top -- and drizzled a little over the meat. The effect was as thrilling as running with the bulls in Pamplona on a broken leg. Somehow Kham had managed to
concentrate a lime tree, a chile bush, and a gallon of fish sauce into a couple of tablespoons. When the meat was gone my friends and I began to measure droplets of the sauce onto our rice and take tiny bites. Wince. Sweat. Swig beer. Sigh. Do it again.
Meals follow a leisurely pace. The food comes when it comes. Dishes get cleared when Earl can get to them. If Earl gets stuck on the phone with take-out calls, Kham darts out of the kitchen to deliver the food she's just cooked. Then, when the pace eases, Earl makes his way around the room pouring water, calling out, "How you doin', young man and young woman?" to couples in their fifties.
Almost every table orders something off the soul-food menu. Earl slow-roasts rather than smokes his ribs -- the fire department would put up too much of a fuss -- but they do come off the bone nicely, and with your order he kindly brings over some paper towels spritzed with water so you can wipe his homemade sauce off your hands. The sides are big mom food, plain and simple. And if you leave your name with the Daniels, they'll give you a call the next time they whip up a batch of chitterlings, gumbo, or fried okra.
Then there's the matter of the mysterious "white-potato" pie, which Earl swears isn't made with sweet potato but I suspect is an Asian variety rather than Idahos spruced up with sugar. Some sweet-potato pies have pumpkin pie envy, their mousselike fillings so pumped up with sugar and spices that you can barely taste the main ingredient. Earl's tastes like sweet potatoes. Spiced, whipped, barely sweetened sweet potatoes, with a crumbly, salty crust and a thin coat of whipped-cream froth. The cream adds just enough sugar so you find yourself chasing after the pie's sweetness, not reeling from it.
Lao-Thai Kitchen may not merit a drive from Walnut Creek, but locals yearning for a side of candied yams with their satay now have a home away from home. I'll wager they always walk out smiling.
By Jonathan Kauffman
Article Published March 15, 2006
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You want something a little exotic; your friend hankers for down-home, all-American food.
No problem if you can get yourself to Lao-Thai Kitchen, a charmingly wood-paneled 26-seat place on Albany's Solano Avenue restaurant row.
Kham P. Daniel, a Laotian chef, serves up generous portions of Lao and Thai food, including a shareable appetizer of goong horn pa, deep-fried marinated shrimp in sweet-sour sauce ($5.95); a mealmaker bowl oftom kha, the galangalflemongrass soup ($6.95); and larb, the cilantro- and mint-fragrant Laotian meat salad ($6.95). A profusion of curries and other entrees (most $7.95) is available with chicken, beef or pork. Lunches ($5.95-$6.95) come \NiLh soup or salad and rice.
Meanwhile, the chefs African American husband, Earl Daniel, cooks up meaty ribs and hot links. These soul food dinners ($8.95) come with candied yams, a slice of properly crumbly cornbread and a choice of sturdy collard greens or creamy black-eyed peas.
So while you deftly weave through garlicky pan-fried rice noodles ($5.95), your partner can gnaw contentedly on some tasty ribs. And you might both agree on a glass of Woodbridge wine or a good imported beer to wash it all down.
Cuisine: Lao, Thai and Southern barbecue. Vitals: 1406 Solano Ave. (near Santa Fe), Albany; (510) 559-3276. Open 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5 p.m.-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Beer and wine. Credit cards accepted.
San Francisco Chronicle
Thursday March 23, 2006
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Lao Thai Kitchen
There is nothing better than spicy Thai food and nothing more comforting than homemade soul food, but finding these two incredibly diffrerent cuisines in the same place can only be found at one place, Lao Thai Kitchen.
Lao Thai Kitchen added soul food to its Menu when owner Earl Daniel, unable to find soul food on Solano Ave., made some for himself. When a customer smelled Earl's food from the kitchen, Earl kindly cooked some barbeque ribs for him. Ever since, ribs and other soul food have been one of Lao Thai Kitchen's main attractions.
Earl. born and raised in Stamps, Arkansas created the soul food menu, while Kham, his wife and head chef, who was raised in Laos near the border with Thailand, created the Lao Thai menu. Earl's menu includes either ribs or hotlinks, served with collard greens, black eyed peas, candied yams, cornbread and an asortment of spices and condiments. Kham's menu is much more extensive and includes customer favorites such as tom kha soup. pumpkin curry and pad kee mow.
Earl does more for Lao Thai Kitchen than provide recipes: he is also a source of inspiration and knowledge. When I sat down to eat and talk with Earl, I learned about his audacious life and got advice about living my own,
One of Earl's main philosophies and the reason his restaurant is so successful is his certainty that, "It ain't the question of whether you win-or lose, just have fun," He and Kham did not enter the restaurant business to make money; they opened Lao Kitchen because of K,ham's love of cooking.
Although starting a business is extremely difficult, Earl's financial management skills have helped tremendously. Earl's accomplishment has much to do with his ability, to carry out his idea that, "It ain't how much you make, its how you manage what you do make."
As Earl continued to tell me about his adventurous life, I smelled my pumpkin curry being made in the kitchen, and I had to stop my self from salivating over the incredible aroma. The curry has a unique blend of sweet and spicy that is enough to startle, but not scorch my taste buds.
When the ribs arrived, Earl infomed me that, "Out of most adversity comes creation." The "bad" scraps of animals, such as the area around the ribs, were once the only part of the animal that slaves were allowed to eat. Slaves experimented with different ways to cook the meat and eventually came up with one of today's most popular dishes, ribs.
The ribs are made from Earl's family recipe and are a blend of slightly sweet and tangy, the flavor of the meat mixing harmoniously with the subtleties of its sauce. The candied yams have a comfortable sweetnes, accompanied by the fresh corn bread and scrumptious blackeyed peas, Each piece is completely satisfying on its own, and when put all together, it is a meal to die for.
Earl believes his wide range of experiences have "made (him) a better person," He has done everything imaginable from attending an all boys private school to serving in the navy to buying and selling cars. The most important lesson he has gained during his life is that "Every action has a reaction," He warned me. "Don't react on what they do. react on why they do it." And- most importantly,"Show kindness."
I finished my meal with a slice of' Earl's white potato pie. With the earthy tones of pumpkin pie as well as a distinctive sweetness, the white potato pie is the perfect end to my meal.
Lao Thai & Soul Food Kitchen is like no other restaurant you will ever eat at. and is a must try for everyone.
Albany High Cougar
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