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Course of Action is a recurring column by Marcus K. Dowling. He believes that behind every great meal, there’s an even better story. This column takes things one step further by exploring how a single dish or course can represent a chef’s background and culinary inspirations.
Restaurant: Laos In Town
Address: 250 K St. NE
Chef: Ben Tiatasin
Dish: Pla tod
The Story: Laos in Town Executive Chef Ben Tiatsin says her rockfish pla tod is popular because it promises the “perfect bite” every time.
The whole garlic and turmeric-flavored fish arrives at the table cut into bite-sized chunks, and is served with a choice of steamed or sticky rice. Though imposingly massive in appearance, there is a desire to hoard the whole dish for yourself instead of sharing it as is intended. The fish is moist, firm, and crispy at the same time.
The ingredients in the fish’s vibrant dressing invite further tasting, particularly the salty fish sauce and nutty cashews. Lime juice and ginger provide tartness. Add this to the turmeric and garlic in the dish’s roots and a flavor rush results.
Laos in Town’s pla tod was initially inspired by Tiatsin’s grandmother’s recipe, which calls for grilled herbs and fried chilis. The chef then built on it, drawing on memories and flavors from her travels. “There are basic techniques used here, but I had combined them with so many unique ideas I picked up from traveling in Laos in the year before the restaurant opened,” she says. “The dishes I design [at Laos in Town] are the types of dishes that I would eat at home.”
The story of how pla tod came to be is simple enough. “While harvesting rice in rice paddies, you trap the fish that swim near you, then cook them later with herbs, lime, and ginger,” Tiatsin says. “Then, you share it with your family and the families that helped to harvest the rice.”
Laos in Town owner Nick Ongsangkoon points to the ceiling, where a quintet of artfully hanging baskets serve as a decor. “Do you see those baskets up there?” he asks. “Those are the exact type of fish traps we use. We brought them over from Southeast Asia!”
Tiatsin’s warm feelings about her creation drive home its importance. “I made this dish growing up, in my hometown, many many times, and people loved it,” she says. “Why not share something that my family and friends loved with other people?”
“I love that we have had entire families come here to eat,” Ongsangkoon says. “Ten people are sitting around a table, sharing our food … It’s hard to find dishes like pla tod in the city, at a restaurant. These are dishes that native people typically cook for themselves at home.”