Beyond the Five Boroughs: Lao Street Food in Luang Prabang

Street food in Luang Prabang, from top left pork noodle soup with fried garlic; sweet Lao-style roti with banana, egg, and sweet milk; fried and fresh spring rolls; fiery papaya salad

I spent a month travelling around Vietnam and Laos. Here is the second entry in our Beyond the Five Boroughs feature on Vietnam and Laos. The first was on Hanoi street food. The third entry explores the enchanting city of Hoi An and the fourth the imperial city of Huế.

The first thing I noticed about the food in Laos is that it was closer to Thai food than to Vietnamese. It has a primal quality with strong, spicy flavors and lots of chilis, garlic and galangal, as well as a far stronger fish sauce than I saw in Vietman (which, unfortunately, they do not let out of the country).

Luang Prabang

One cannot go to Laos without visiting Luang Prabang. This enchanting and relaxing city of beautiful French-colonial architecture is nestled between soaring karst mountains. We intended to stay there for only 3 or 4 days but ended up there for almost 10.

Naturally we had plenty of time to sample the city’s street food, which is some of the best in Southeast Asia. Most of the street food in Luang Prabang is sold at the city’s superb night market where literally hundreds of stalls line a main street selling handmade wares and of course food. The market is a serene and enjoyable place for a nightly stroll; a far cry from the night market in Hanoi where the density of people crowding the streets can be as bad as a NYC subway during rush hour.

Soups
Pork noodle soup at Xieng Thong with galangal, chili, bean sprouts, and lime

Like the Vietnamese, Laotian people love soup and just like in Vietnam, many Lao people eat soup for breakfast. The best soup in town is served at a modest stall called Xieng Thong Noodle-Shop located near Wat Xiang on the far east of the town’s main penninsula. The shop sells one dish – a pork noodle soup either with or without a poached egg floating on top ($1/$1.20). It’s open from 7 am until they run out of soup, usually by around 2 pm.

The peppery broth is thick with crispy garlic slivers and spring onions on top and comes with over half a dozen condiments: bean sprouts, lime, chilis, galangal, fish sauce, vinegar, and soy sauce. With this kind of self-seasoning, the soup can take on different flavors on each visit; not that the soup needs much addition, it’s great by itself or perhaps with just a few chilis and a squeeze of Lao lime (a mix between a lemon and a lime).

Pork soup with spongy rice noodles and meatballs

Other stalls closer to the night market sell different soups including an unusual one with thick springy rice noodles, sliced pork, and meatballs with a spiced chicken broth. This one came with a side of chopped Chinese long beans, cabbage, and Lao basil, along with chilis and limes. The soup was good but I was bothered by the excessive springyness of the noodles and an odd sponge-like texture of the meatballs. The long beans were great.

Night Market: Salads, noodles, skewers, and dumplings

Lemongrass-marinated charcoal grilled skewers of everything from fish to quails at the night market
Papaya salad at the night market

The night market offers at least a dozen different types of savory street food. It can be a bit overwhelming but that’s okay – if you’re anything like me, you’ll be in Luang Prabang for a while and will have enough time to try them all.

I love papaya salads and the ones at the night market were some of the best I’ve had. Most are made to order, the papaya hand-sliced while the other ingredients (including very spicy chili) are pounded with a mortar and pestle before a tangy fish sauce-based dressing is applied. Chopped peanuts complete the dish.

Even spicier papaya salad

The night market salad was excellent and sufficiently fiery. It reminded me almost exactly of the Pok Pok salad that I had in New York at Pok Pok Wing when it was open (also available at Pok Pok Ny) but this one was only $1.20.

But for an even bolder salad with serious heat and what appeared to be homemade fish sauce (it had a seriously pungent, gnarly smell), try a small stall parked away from the night market during the day across from the national palace on Sisavangvong street. This was the real deal, but not for the faint of heart.

Fried and fresh spring rolls

The night market is also notable for its enormous variety of skewered fish and meats, rubbed with a lemongrass marinade and then charcoal grilled. These vendors place everything from entire fish to pork ribs to chicken breasts to quails between two large sticks. A whole fish ($3.50) and chicken breast ($2) were the best we tried. The fish was tender with a crispy lemongrass-infused skin; though you have to work around bones. The pork rib ($2) was too fatty.

Other highlights of the market were pork and vegetable dumplings, hand-made and then steamed in front of you before they are quickly browned in a pan (5 for $1.20). They come with a chili-oil sauce that adds quite a bite.

Fresh and deep fried vegetarian spring rolls were pretty good, though they were made in advance so the deep fried ones were not hot enough when we ordered them. The fresh ones were better with a nice quantity of herbs inside and a sweet and spicy sauce. Here’s a recipe to make them at home.

Sweet & spicy noodles emerge from a banana leaf

There are also numerous noodle preparations available. I especially liked sweet noodles sprinkled with some minced chilis and then wrapped in a banana leaf with bean sprouts and Lao basil ($1.20). The sweet and spicy combination was really interesting – and unexpected (actually, I had no idea I was even getting noodles, I just pointed to a fun looking pouch made out of a folded banana leaf).

While many of the savory street food offerings are excellent, the real highlights are desserts.

Desserts: crepes, rotis, and coconut cakes

Fantastic crispy and gooey coconut cakes

I’m not usually a dessert person but the sweet street food offerings in Luang Prabang are outstanding. Mini coconut cakes fried in a molded cast iron pan over charcoal are simply awesome. The vendor fries each side separately before placing one side on top of another ensuring that the outsides are crispy while the inside remains soft and gooey (60 cents for 4). These need to come to New York. A food truck could make a killing selling them.

A pouch of coconut cakes

Another excellent dessert is similar to a sweet Thai-style roti. A thin roti – a cross between a crepe and a pancake – is fried in butter and topped with numerous sweet toppings. A traditional variety combines eggs, bananas, and sweet milk and is a luxurious treat.

French style crepes also line the night market, but the pancakes are superior.

Fortunately it’s impossible to miss these street food options, as virtually all of them can be found at the unmissable night market (the others I’ve separately noted above). Enjoy!

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