Laos in Town opens tomorrow in NoMa with a wide-ranging, affordable menu of traditional cuisine. Two Bangkok natives are behind the restaurant located at 250 K St. NE—owner Nick Ongsangkoon and Chef Ben Tiatasin. Both fell in love with Lao cuisine while visiting the country during their childhoods, and more recently through research trips to different regions of the Southeast Asian country.
“Each time, I rent a car and drive to places that are mentioned on the internet or in foodie groups,” says Ongsangkoon, who is also a partner at downtown Thai restaurant Soi 38. He describes the difference between Lao and Thai cuisines.
“Thai food has a lot of Chinese and Indian influences. That’s why you see green, red, and yellow curries. And noodle dishes. Lao food is still pure. There’s not much influence from those other countries. Fundamentally, they start from the same base and share the same food culture, but the taste is exotic and authentic. You can feel like you’re there when you eat it.”
Tiatasin’s expansive menu (below) includes appetizers like deep-fried quail and and herbal pork sausage; three versions of papaya salad; soups; and main dishes that star grilled whole fish and chicken, plus noodles and fried rice. Her resume includes front-of-house and back-of-house jobs at Padaek (formerly Bangkok Golden) in Falls Church, Thip Khao, and Esaan in McLean, which all serve Northern Thai or Lao food.
On your first visit try the LIT signature salad. It starts with a papaya salad base, but it’s modeled off of a dish the pair discovered in Laos where cooks add ingredients liberally. “They throw everything in there,” Ongsangkoon says. “Whatever they have in the kitchen, like pork loaf, they add in.”
Also try the grilled jumbo prawns. It took them a while to find shrimp the size of what Lao fishermen pull up in their nets in the Mekong River. Tiatasin butterflies them, grills them, and serves them with a spicy lime dipping sauce. In addition to the regular menu there is also a dedicated vegan menu.
Appetizers range from $6 to $8 and main dishes from $13- to $25. “I would like all of Washingtonians to try this,” Ongsangkoon says. “I don’t want to set the price higher to limit the customer. I would love them all to try it. I want to be a part of that neighborhood in NoMa. I want them to feel like I felt when I visited Laos. It’s a hidden gem.”
The drink menu includes seven cocktails, a mix of Lao and local beers, and wine. Bartenders fold ingredients like Thai basil, banana, tamarind, lemongrass, and papaya into the cocktails.
Laos in Town has 95 seats. It’s appointed with traditional lunch boxes carried by Laotian workers and fishing traps. Ongsangkoon hauled them back from Laos. “In Southeast Asian cultures, we believe you can catch money rather than fish if you hang [the baskets] in your business,” he explains. They symbolize prosperity and wealth. “We tie red, green, blue, and orange ribbons on the mouth of the trap. That means we show respect.”
When Laos in Town opens tomorrow, its hours will be Mondays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Fridays from 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturdays from 12 to 10:30 p.m.; and Sundays from 12 to 10 p.m.
Laos in Town, 250 K St. NE; (202) 864-6620; laosintown.com