Take the Slow Boat

Michael Dvorak

Vientiane Sukiyaki Deli
2734 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 871-8737
Hours: Monday-Thursday 10:00 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Friday-Sunday 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.

Yesterday I had pearly hands--tender, slender credit to a life of tuffets, tapioca, and tranquillity. But today I've gnawed them down to bloody stumps, so worried am I that you'll take an illegal speedboat up the Mekong River this winter.

Now, I know that you're in a tear to visit Laos for many reasons--it is, after all, "Visit Laos Year" (www.visit-laos.com), and the government has opened up the borders in hope of attracting foreign cash. And yes, January and February are the best months to go, as the tropical heat isn't too oppressive and the monsoon rains haven't yet begun. Of course, there are an estimated 60,000 Laotians living in Minnesota and you want to get to know their culture better; and what with that nest egg of yours, well, I know I can't expect you to stick around here all winter.

But still, how can you insist on taking the quick route upriver from the capital, Vientiane, toward sights like the enigmatic Plain of Jars where enormous, solid stone monuments rest under the hot skies? Those jars have been on that plain for hundreds of years! You can wait the extra day or two it takes the sluggish ferries to amble up the Mekong while the thin cigarette boats speed like demons along the teeming river. Don't believe me? Just check the Lonely Planet bulletin board, (www.lonelyplanet.com/letters/sea/lao_pc.htm) where travelers post their tales of boats snapping in two and death by head-on collision. No matter how romantic the fast boats seem, stick to the slow boats!

And no, I simply don't care that you've been daydreaming in the tidy booths at the Twin Cities' first Laotian restaurant, Vientiane Sukiyaki Deli, located off Nicollet Avenue in that good-luck little strip mall that has spawned Rainbow Chinese and Quang Deli. I know you've been thinking of the river while munching on Laotian festival foods like an appetizer serving of boned chicken wings ($3.95) overstuffed like little balloons with pork, water chestnuts, and thin silver noodles, all deep-fried and served with the wing tips jutting off as crispy handles. So you also enjoyed the seafood salad ($4.50), a vinegar-bright combination of tender squid, boiled shrimp, and tomatoes? The devilishly fiery papaya salad ($5), a mélange of crisp green papaya, marinated tomato shreds, and lettuce? You still can't careen through the broad-leaved foliage with your knees tucked up to your chin. I won't allow it.

And don't even start in on Vientiane's excellent curries, like the savory green chicken curry ($6.95), rich with coconut milk and dotted with smoky kaffir-lime leaves. Yes, I do remember the lucky night I ordered the trout in curry sauce ($7.50): Vientiane was out of trout but instead served a whole tilapia, its tender white flesh a perfect match for the golden coconut curry.

I do realize that if you took a speedboat up the Mekong you might end up with enough spare time to cross the border into Thailand--which is, after all, as close to Vientiane as Afton is to St. Paul. And I know that it's the Thai-inspired dishes at Vientiane that put you in a mind to do that. It matters not that the tom yum soup is excellent, lively with lemongrass, sweet with coconut milk, and savory with little straw mushrooms and your choice of shrimp ($8.95) or chicken ($6.95); or that the nicely chewy pad thai comes in an immense portion costing a ridiculously low $5.95 to $6.95 depending on your choice of meat. I won't be swayed by talk of how fascinating Vientiane's version of sukiyaki ($5.95) is--recalling, at first, the Vietnamese noodle soup pho, but presented with a plate of un-pho-like accompaniments including scallions, a heated raw egg you crack and stir into the hot broth, and a bowl of seasoning paste that tastes like chocolate mole, but is actually made of peanut, garlic, onion and red-tofu sauce.

Quit your whining. Not even the generous Laotian hospitality--as demonstrated by the Sylavong family whose father, Dan, works his wizardry in the kitchen while kids Christy, Sam, and Phet run the floor between other jobs and school--is worth putting your life on the line. You want derring-do? Fine: You may work your way up through Dan Sylavong's delicious larb offerings, larb being a combination of ground meat and ground rice, seasoned with lime juice and galanga (a gingerlike root) and served on lettuce with cucumber slices--not unlike a Southeast Asian taco salad. Christy Sylavong says she advises first-timers to start with the chicken larb ($5.25), the mildest and most balanced of the dishes. When you're good and ready, you can advance through savory pork larb ($5.25), or light and zesty fish larb ($8.95). And once you're really on the edge, you can request the off-the-menu specialty, raw beef larb, Vientiane's version of steak tartare. Do enough for you, you Evil Knievel of the Mekong? No? Okay, someone mix me up a nice cocktail of wheatgrass and Valium. I'm all worn out with your wanderlust.



A BODICE-RIPPING NEW YEAR'S: I'm not saying amnesia isn't a fine plot device, and I have nothing against the long-lost evil twin, but I ask you, in all honesty, is there anything superior to a masquerade ball? Let's say you've got a whole lot of characters and you need them to get into trouble--you could lock them up all night in a haunted house, you could have a crazy guy with a gun show up--but why, when a masquerade offers all that and more? Danger, mystery, feathers--it's all there, people. Throw on a mask, some fancy dress, turn the lights low--and lickety-split, shabba-dabba-ding-dong, everybody's having sex with their sisters, their enemies, their long-lost wives, whatever. Don't buy it? Just read a couple romance novels. Or better yet, show up at Joe's Garage--1610 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, (612) 904-1163; www.joes-garage.com--on New Year's Eve for a do-it-yourself plot shakeup.

Joe Kaplan, the restaurant's owner, says the key is feathers: "I do have a really great mask I bought at Electric Fetus--they have a whole bunch of them--sort of a New Orleans Mardi Gras-style thing, with the feathers coming off the top. But I also bought a lot of cheapies to hand out at the door."

Cheap is one of the operative words at Joe's this New Year's: Entrance to the masquerade ball is free to anyone who makes reservations for one of Joe's prix-fixe dinners that night. A mere $19.95 gets you a sparkling Chandon Brut, an appetizer of either caesar salad, mixed green salad, or spicy cream-cheese won tons; an entrée of portobello mushroom fettuccini, a spicy Asian pork burger, or jambalaya risotto; and a dessert of strawberry shortcake, chocolate mousse, or chocolate swirl cheesecake. For another $10 you may have crab cakes as your appetizer, and blackened sea bass, grilled sirloin, or jumbo shrimp in a lemon-thyme custard for an entrée.

Those who opt for just the ball can buy a ticket for $20 in advance; that fee gets you two drink tickets, hors d'oeuvres, champagne at midnight, and door prizes. If there are any tickets left the day of the party, they'll sell for $25. And if the next morning you have any stories of dreadful misunderstandings or hilarious misadventures--please, please, send them my way. I'll hang on to them through 2020, when those millennium babies start asking who their real father is.

YES, KANGAROO: If Joe's menu isn't up to your romance-and-scandal standards, or if you just can't get lubed up for the big night without dropping a couple of C-notes, dine next door at the Loring Café, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, (612) 332-1617, where the New Year's Eve dinner runs $100. Chef Patrick Atanalian is setting out to prove that he has not yet come close to pulling out all the stops: His slightly frightening, slightly awesome dinner begins with appetizers like the "Woman in Red," a duck confit spring roll cocktail; goes on to entrées such as pumpkin-mascarpone ravioli in black truffle-essence broth or frenched rack of kangaroo served with purple potato cake, asparagus, and sun-dried-tomato tapénade in a lemongrass-and-23-karat-gold sauce; and closes with dessert options like Millennial Meltdown or Chocolate Apocalypse. Oh, Patrick, Patrick, Patrick. Is it any wonder that the Loring has taken to calling itself the Twin Cities headquarters of "faintly decadent dining"?

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