Chances are you know more about Laotian food than you think you do. The country of Laos is nestled between Vietnam and Thailand, and its cuisine bears a number of influences from those nations (especially Thailand, where more Lao people live than in Laos proper). You may have had larb salad or sticky rice without realizing that those are Thai interpretations of Laotian dishes. In fact, the Lao people regard sticky rice as their national dish because the grains adhere to one another, like the people stick together in the face of adversity. A regional chain of restaurants with most of its spots in Dallas, Zaap Kitchen has recently planted the thungsad Lāo in the TCU area, carving out a welcome niche in our food scene.
The Fort Worth location is in the Westbend shopping district, and the biggest issue is the lack of outdoor seating. The front entrance opens onto a courtyard with only three tables, some of which are quite distant from the restaurant. There is also a length of wooden bench if you want to hold your food on your lap or put it on the seat next to you. You could sit indoors, but the space inside is so small that I didn’t feel safe there even though I’ve had all my COVID vaccinations. The only time I could grab a seat indoors was when I went in the late afternoon, after the lunchtime crowd had departed.
The reason for my late afternoon was a bad bout of indigestion the night before. A place that serves spicy food doesn’t sound like the most encouraging place to go on a queasy stomach. Happily, the kitchen’s khao piak sen (Lao-style chicken noodle soup) was exactly what I needed. From my travels in Southeast Asian cuisine, I expected the fragrances of lemongrass and ginger wafting up from the bowl. I did not expect the tapioca-and-flour noodles, which were as thick and chewy as Japanese udon and cooked in the broth to thicken it. The soup also included both shredded white and dark meat, and while I would have gladly taken all dark, the different meats varied the dish’s texture. I even felt secure drizzling a bit of the accompanying chile oil on top, so comforting the soup was.
I ordered my papaya salad Lao-style, which is different from Thai-style in its inclusion of cherry tomatoes with the julienned slices of green papaya and carrot. The veggies came with fermented crab and crab paste, the lime and cilantro dressing accented the dish well, and the whole thing would have been really refreshing if I hadn’t ruined it by requesting a spice level that was one notch too high and turned the meal into work. (You can customize the heat on all the restaurant’s spicy dishes by requesting levels 1-5.) The pepper on mine was enough to distract me from the dancing garlic riblets that came with it. The ribs were chopped into bits, some of which were more bone than meat. Even so, with the crispy bits of deep-fried garlic clinging to the pork, they were tasty enough to make me understand why it’s one of the favorites on the menu.
I requested beef as the protein for my drunken noodles, and it came to me ground up in a nice pebbly grind, as they say. This will be a bummer for anyone who likes thick, steak-like cuts of meat with noodle dishes. I rather liked it, since the tiny bits of meat didn’t distract from the great flaps of noodles that distinguish this dish named because it’s reputed to be a hangover cure. Those pasta sheets are a big reason why drunken noodles are so comforting.
The restaurant has no soda fountain, so if you want something other than ice water, you’ll need to hit the place’s refrigerator case and buy a soda or a pre-made Thai iced tea or Laotian iced coffee. The condensed milk in the latter beverage did help tame the spice from my papaya salad, and there was an odd but pleasing note of smoke up top that made this a more interesting drink than a comparably priced latté at Starbucks. I found the side of sticky rice to be a bit too good at clumping together, even in its iteration as a dessert with coconut milk and mango. Still, that dessert is a winner for a solid reason: The richness of coconut and the brightness of mango go hand in hand down a tropical beach.
Eating at Zaap Kitchen is an educational experience on an obscure corner of the food world, but you should just go there because their stuff tastes good.
Zaap Kitchen, 1621 River Run, Ste 171, FW. 11am-10pm daily. 682-255-5752. All major credit cards accepted.
Khao piak sen $10.99
Green papaya salad $9.99
Dancing garlic riblets $7.99
Drunken noodles $10.99
Lao iced coffee $3.99
Sticky rice with mango $6.99