Thatched baskets of sticky rice arrive alongside tart pork sausages still sputtering from the pan. Papaya salad follows, the strands of green, unripened fruit stained a murky brown from fermented blue crab paste. At Tom Yum Koong in Westminster, among the offal-laden boat noodles and coconut-rich curries of Thailand are the flavors of Laos.
Traffic flows past Tom Yum Koong in a stream of steel and rubber, pouring off the nearby freeway into the concrete delta of strip malls and suburban churches. The restaurant is looked at and looked over. To some, it may look like just another neighborhood Thai restaurant: salads sluiced with lime juice and chiles, broad rice noodles snaking through puddles of soy sauce. But the kitchen maintains a distinct duality, capable in Thai and Laotian cooking.
Tom Yum Koong's Laotian influence belongs to chef and owner Manivanh Chansmouth. She and her family purchased the restaurant two years ago, restyling it with warm chocolate walls and a constellation of paper lanterns. Owing to her Laotian heritage, Chansmouth retrofitted the menu by adding a concise selection of Laotian specialties and Isaan-style Thai favorites. The latter are Laos-influenced dishes from Isaan, Thailand's northeastern region that sits just across the Mekong River from Laos.
Chansmouth prepares everything Laotian while a Thai chef handles the other half of the menu, a partnership intent on capturing the nuances of each cuisine.
Discerning those differences requires some investigation. The menu yields few clues, detailing only its historically Laos-influenced Isaan options. But there are signs of something else entirely: families ordering with little more than understanding glances exchanged with their servers, plates shipping out from the kitchen wholly unlike their Thai equivalents. Virtually everything here, a server explains, can be attuned to Laotian tastes, a palate that often prefers sour and earthy, bitter and spicy.
For example, Tom Yum Koong's most essential Laotian lesson is its papaya salad. In the ubiquitous Thai iteration, the fruit is lit up with lime juice, made marine with fish sauce and dried shrimp, dosed with chiles and sweetened with palm sugar. Even in appearance, Tom Yum Koong's Laotian version is intensely different: a tangle of firm, shredded papaya awash in a turbid dressing that owes its sepia hue to a base of fermented crab paste. The flavor of fermentation is pungent but restrained. This is papaya salad in its elemental state, bold and wild with enough capsaicin to permanently shock your metabolism.
And crisp-skinned sausages pack in the pork. While there's a decidedly Thai-style link loaded with lemongrass, there is also a sour Laotian sausage, its tartness tempered with garlic. For the purely meat-minded, there are also two types of jerky, either beef or pork dried, fried and best balled up with a bit of sticky rice.
Larb has been adopted into Thailand's culinary canon, but the dish is a Laotian creation, existing there before the arbitrary application of colonial boundaries. There are ground chicken, beef and pork preparations tossed with toasted ground rice, chiles, red onion, mint and even more lime juice. But truly superb is the fish larb, whole hunks of perfectly tender fish that better hold up to the salad's citric bite and creeping heat. This is the dish that will disappear first, gone in only a few chile-addled minutes.
The restaurant's namesake soup, tom yum koong, appears at the table in a volcanic hot pot big enough for at least four. Shrimp and mushrooms bob to the surface while an almost medicinal measure of chiles remain concealed below along with shards of lemongrass and galangal. The soup stings with each pleasant slurp.
Some diners may never eat beyond the sweetly charred barbecue chicken or the heaps of pan-fried noodles. And for them, Tom Yum Koong will be no less pleasant. But it will be incomplete, a rare exploration of Laos stopped short at the border.
TOM YUM KOONG
LOCATION: 7132 Garden Grove Blvd., Suite A, Westminster; (714) 891-8192.
PRICE: Appetizers, $4.95 to $6.95; soups and salads, $6.99 to $8.95; Isaan Thai and Laotian specials, $6.65 to $8.49; curries and entrees, $6.99 to $8.99.
DETAILS: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Closed Monday. Lot parking. Credit cards accepted.