By Kevin Revolinski | Photography by TP Photography
Bordering on Vietnam, China and Thailand, Laos often flies under the radar when it comes to their cuisine. Not so in Madison.
Lao Laan-Xang first opened on Madison’s west side in 1990, proudly serving Lao food in a city always willing to try something new. In 1997, the eatery moved to Williamson Street, into a two-story building with a brick façade that blends right into the eclectic, mixed-residential Willy Street neighborhood. Since then, it’s become a veritable institution, prompting the owners to open a second location in 2005, a mile east, on Atwood Avenue.
Both are run by members of the Inthachith family. Founders Christine Inthachith and her mother, Bounyong, fled Laos in 1980, along with Christine’s three siblings. The family spent three months in a refugee camp in Thailand, and another three in the Philippines, until Catholic Relief Services found them a sponsor family in Madison. Ten years old at the time, Christine, like the rest of her family, didn’t speak a word of English. She went to school on Madison’s east side, and a decade later, while still earning her university degrees, she looked to the restaurant industry for an opportunity for her mother to use her great skills in the kitchen — thus, Lao Laan-Xang was born.
Here you’ll find several sumptuous curries crafted with herbs, spices and warming chilies. Lao Laan-Xang created their own quirky heat thermometer — timid, careful, adventurous or native Lao — so guests can specify how spicy they want their meal. And it’s served up with rice. Rice is a cornerstone of Lao cuisine and is often called “sticky rice” for the way it clumps together. It’s something any first-timer should be sure to try.
One menu item is not only a signature of the restaurant, but of the city itself: their curry squash has made several “reader’s choice” lists. At neighborhood festivals, crowds wait in long lines at the restaurant’s food cart for a serving of this masterpiece, which features locally-grown acorn and butternut squash, zucchini and Thai eggplant in a creamy, coconut milk-based curry sauce, with a choice of tofu or chicken.
Another must-try is Thum Som, a salad made from shredded green papaya pounded in a mortar with garlic, chilies, shrimp paste, tamarind, lime, cherry tomatoes, Thai eggplant and fish sauce. It’s a great counterpoint to the fried chicken that comes with it.