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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

The Way of the Lao

August 31, 1995|JONATHAN GOLD

If, 10 years ago, somebody had asked you to come up with the still center of postwar Orange County, you could have done worse than name the intersection of Euclid and La Palma, somewhere near the leafy heart of old Anaheim, the CIF football powerhouse Servite and great stretches of the pleasant '50s bungalows that all but defined the G.I. Bill-financed California dream. La Palma Chicken Pie Restaurant, whose menu might conceivably have been imported straight from Moline, Ill. is right down the block.

But in 1995, this corner of Anaheim is as cosmopolitan as any few blocks of Hollywood or San Gabriel, with authentic Mexican taqueriias and Salvadoran pupusa shops, Thai grocery stores and a mall full of Chinese restaurants whose home branches line the streets of Monterey Park. Half a block west of here lies what might be the only Lao strip mall in Southern California, with a couple of Lao markets, what looks like a Lao hairdressing salon and a gaggle of Lao teen-agers who flirt with one another from the front seats of late-'80s Japanese sedans.

At the heart of this center is Sang Dao, as far as I know the first serious Lao restaurant in town. It's an inconspicuous place masquerading as a neighborhood Thai-Chinese place: Raiders game blaring in the corner and syrupy Asian ballads dripping from a tape deck up front, the smell of frying garlic and a wall dominated by Buddhist shrines.

It would be possible to eat here 20 times without suspecting that there was anything more to the restaurant than ginger beef and panaeng . Mostly, the printed menu lists the usual Thai stuff: beef sauteed with Chinese broccoli and oyster sauce, a decent hot-sour mixed seafood soup and a very nice version of the dish usually called "ginger fish" in Thai-Chinese restaurants. Lao barbecued chicken is almost indistinguishable from Thai barbecued chicken; fried Lao noodles are more or less pad Thai by a different name. (Even the Lao version of pho , the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup, has a complex sourness you might associate with Thai food.)

This makes a certain amount of sense. Laos and Thailand are next to each other, and the one Lao cookbook ever published includes recipes for dishes that are extremely similar to naem sod and chicken-coconut soup.

The majority of the Lao dishes here, transliterated but not translated on a chalkboard by the door, seem less like the relatively tropical cooking of Vietnam or Cambodia and more like the Isaan-style food of northeastern Thailand (which Laos abuts; a few of the Isaan-style restaurants in the Southland may actually be run by Laotians, but nobody's telling), with lots of raw vegetables, basketfuls of exotic herbs and sticky rice served with everything.

Much of the Lao food at Sang Dao falls into the category of stuff to nibble with a cold Heineken or two: pungent, chile-hot finger food. Crunchy fried quail, elusively flavored with something that tastes like, but probably isn't, five-spice powder, is cut into bite-size quarters and served with a dipping sauce of pureed chiles. Deep-fried Lao sausage--crusty-edged, sour with lemon grass--has a deep, porky flavor that is somehow reminiscent of great Bolognese mortadella, although Lao sausage would never be taken for mortadella in a police lineup. Lao beef jerky is sweet, edged with black, delicious.

A lot of the Lao specials are fiery-hot salads dressed with chile and lime, tossed with a fragrant powder of coarsely ground toasted rice, pungent with raw garlic, pounded eggplant and herbs. Duck larb is dark and gamy, flavored with bits of cooked duck liver; a salad of warm grilled beef tongue is terrific, the animal richness of the tongue cut through nicely by the raw garlic's bite. One grilled-beef salad involves slabs of rare steak and an abundance of green chiles; a larb of beef, thinly sliced, is almost alive with the fragrance of fresh mint.

After all the fire, it would be inconceivable to leave Sang Dao without at least one order of ripe mango with sticky rice. If the new Orange County were all it's cracked up to be, mango with sticky rice would be as ubiquitous in summer as strawberry pie.

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Where to Go

Sang Dao Lao Thai Cuisine, 1739 W. La Palma Ave., Anaheim, (714). Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. MasterCard and Visa accepted. Beer and wine. Takeout. Parking lot. Dinner for two, food only, $12-$18.

What to Get

Vientiane fried rice, linh nam tok , mango sticky rice, Lao sausage

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