1126 Laotian at Bamboo

I can’t say that I’ve had much Laotian food. In fact, I’m not sure that I’d had any before today. But oh my goodness, that’s got to change.

After a really nice evening at the farm, we hit the road first thing this morning and drove to Rockford, arriving just in time for lunch. Jenn suggested Bamboo – they don’t get there often, it’s in the absolute opposite direction from all of the Black Friday shopping, and it’s sort of the polar opposite of the turkey-and-stuffing options available at most of our normal Rockford haunts.

I’m easily overwhelmed by menus at Asian restaurants, a fact that was compounded today by road-weariness and a persistent Thanksgiving food coma. I definitely did NOT want something heavy or something fried, so I settled on the Laotian Spicy Green Papaya – more properly known as Tam mak hoong: shredded unripened papaya, fish sauce, anchovy paste, and a few other things I can’t remember at the moment. The waitress was skeptical.

“Have you had the papaya salad before?”

“No, but it sounds good.”

“OK, I just wanted to make sure because it’s not sweet – it has fish in it.”

“Yes, I know.”

Shane was also concerned that it would be too fishy, but I was firm in my choice, and glad of it when a beautiful, funky, and fresh salad was presented to me.

Som Tam
Photo by tim7423

Even better, however, was Shane’s lunch: Nam khao. It wasn’t just good – it was crazy good – a nutty, crunchy rice salad studded with cured pork eaten by hand out of lettuce leaves. I got lucky – Shane had a few too many appetizers and wasn’t able to finish, so I scooped up bite after bite, trying to figure out what and how exactly it was made.

My Nam Khao (Lao rice salad) at Precita Park
Photo by Gary Soup

The secret? The rice is made with coconut milk, then rolled into a ball along with curry paste and other seasonings and DEEP FRIED. Once it cools, the rice ball is crumbled up – crispy bits and all – and tossed with the rest of the ingredients. It was unlike anything either of us have ever had – and we can’t wait to get more of it.

0806 First Pho

Stuck in traffic in the Loop and hungry for dinner, I could only throw out familiar restaurants when asked where we should go for dinner.  JMK or the Rose, maybe?  Or whatever?  Shane conveyed this to Jenn, who then suggested that we try a new Asian restaurant in downtown Rockford that she and Bill had checked out for their anniversary a few weeks earlier.  Despite getting a bajillion mosquito bites between the four of us, I’m glad we went with her suggestion!  My suggestion to sit outside may have been less wise, and for that I apologize to my poor itchy siblings.

pho love
photo by Mr. Wright

We have gone entirely too long without trying pho. I would blame this on living in middle America, but with a lovely noodle bar open on campus and several Asian restaurants proudly advertising their pho, we really have no excuse.  After puzzling over the menu at Bamboo for entirely too long tonight, I settled on the pho with pork meatball and shrimp.  Mark got the same, but with different meats.  And as soon as our bowls arrived, we were the envy of everyone.

Pho might not seem like the most logical choice for a hot summer’s night – a big bowl of fragrant broth with noodles and tender meat that you top with an assortment of fresh garnishes – but it was warm in a good way – nourishing and comforting without making me overheated.  Mark made his hot and spicy with sriracha, while I added hoisin sauce for sweetness.  The whole experience – receiving the oversized bowl, adding the bean sprouts and lime, fishing out meatballs with chopsticks and a spoon – reminded me of Tampopo, as it absolutely should.

Having had my fill of delicious broth and noodles, I can’t wait to try pho again once the weather cools off a bit and I can wrap myself in an aromatic blanket of Asian food.  That made absolutely no sense, but if you’ve had pho, you know what I mean.