Laotian Lunch at Thip Khao

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After another satisfying trip back home to Vancouver filled with lots of dim sum, ice cream and sushi, my trifecta, I am back in DC. Back to reality.

Recently, I finally got a bit of a breather so I went exploring again. This time, I picked Thip Khao, both for the food and the history of the restaurant.

Thip Khao is a restaurant in Columbia Heights that features Laotian food and recently appeared on Michelin’s Bib Gourmand list for DC restaurants in 2017. Qualifying for Bib Gourmand means that a restaurant must provide two main courses and a glass of wine or dessert at $40 or less. Gourmet, absolutely delicious, Michelin-worthy food of course. And I can testify that they do qualify. Hee.

What is special about Thip Khao’s history is its owner, Chef Seng. Chef Seng only started officially in the restaurant business when she was 40. She was born in Laos and like many had to flee the country during the Vietnam War. She spent part of her childhood in the refugee camp in Thailand, where she learned to cook from other people also staying at the refugee camp. She had been cooking since she was quite young. Years after immigrating to the US she finally entered the restaurant business, and Thip Khao is one of her creations.

Having never tried Laotian food before (my geography-challenged mind had to look at a map first), I am even more appreciative of the fact that she decided to open a Laotian restaurant within my reach. Ha. The fact that she was born in Laos and her unique culinary education also lend a sense of authenticity to her food that is rare to find.

Anyway, enough yapping. Here’s the food.

A complimentary starter. Thick-sliced cucumber with fermented chili pepper. Sweet and Spicy and verrry healthy. I also thought it was so “mom.” Like a mom making her kids eat some greens before the meal. Adorable.

The Naem Khao Hu Muu. This is one of Thip Khao’s signature. Now, I must preface this by saying that Thip Khao has 2 menus. The regular one with regular meat options like pork, chicken, beef and such and the Junnnngggllleee Menu (edits my own), where there are more exotic and fun meat options like goat and crocodile(not this time). Naturally, I went full jungle.

This Naem Khao is the Jungle Menu version, because it has crispy coconut rice, sour pork, peanut, cilantro, ginger, mint, scallion and steamed pig’s ears. Yum. I’m Taiwanese, we like to make pig’s ears in many different ways because it’s so good and the cartilage is  crunchy. Collagen, guys and gals. The Naem Khao came with a basket of fresh lettuce leaves for wrapping, which I thought was necessary. The crispy rice salad is like a flavorbomb. All the aromatics and the sour pork blended together made for a very spicy, meaty and salty salad. The salad’s flavor was almost a little too strong on its own, but it tasted more balanced when it’s wrapped in the lettuce leaves.

The Thomp Som Paa Kot, with tamarind-fresh coconut broth, blue catfish, Thai basil, cilantro, hon shimeji, tomato and onion. I wanted to try Blue Catfish, which was on the menu and this is what the waiter recommended. This was soul warming. It’s been quite cold in DC lately and this was the perfect remedy. The Thomp Som is kind of like sour and spicy soup and while the soup had strong acidity, the actual broth was quite clear and tasted clean. The tomato, onion and the greens also make the broth tasted like a detox soup. I’ve never tried Blue Catfish before and I was quite surprised. Underneath the veggies and scallions are chunky fillets of the catfish and while they are not buttery-fat like black cod, they do taste quite tender, not too flaky.

Since I was so good, essentially drinking a veggie and fish broth for my main, I thought I absolutely deserved dessert. This is the Khao Long, with kabocha squash custard, salted coconut sauce, crispy mung beans and coconut sticky rice. It was like comfort food. The kabocha squash and the coconut sauce were quite creamy and sweet and mixed well with the coconut sticky rice underneath. It was a very rich and filling dessert. While I am sure they have added other ingredients in the dessert, I am tempted to make this at home.

Thip Khao was absolutely satisfying and I am positive I will return for a second round. I am eager to try more of the menu and to learn more about Laotian food.

Now, I like to keep this blog strictly about food, and not add politics in the mix. However, with the horror show that’s been going on in the big White House up on Capitol Hill that is making America look more and more like a dystopian novel, it makes me even more appreciative of the many immigrants that have made America their home. Putting it rather simply, if there are no immigrants, we won’t get precious opportunities like this to try authentic ethnic cuisines from all over the world. Diversity is what makes America great. As a Canadian citizen living in the US, it’s heartbreaking to see American lose that. And as Lin-Manuel Miranda says in Hamilton, “Immigrants, we get the job done.”

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