Opinions vary as to what the next “hot” cuisine in America will be. As an independent observer of the New Mexico culinary condition, I’m more interested in how long it will take for that heat to make its way to the Land of Enchantment…and whether its sizzle will wow Duke City diners or make them go bow-wow. In 2005, Bon Appetit declared Peruvian the next hot cuisine. Apparently Albuquerque didn’t think it was so hot because Perumex, the city’s first and only Peruvian restaurant both opened and closed the year of Bon Appetit’s proclamation. Thankfully Rene and Monica Coronado have since opened Pollito Con Papas to give the Duke City a second chance at a taste of Peru.
If history repeats itself, perhaps Lao cuisine, the cuisine of Laos (officially the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) will follow Thai and Vietnamese cuisines as the hot cuisine embraced by ethnic-food ravenous American diners. That would be my wish and my prediction. Laos is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia bordered by Myanmar (formerly Burma), China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. The influence of neighboring nations can be seen in Lao cuisine. A French influence is also in evidence. From 1893 to 1954 when it gained full independence, Laos was part of the Protectorate of French Indonesia.
The geography and history of a nation is a strong determinant in its culinary culture, and while the influence of other nations may be in evidence, each country in Southeast Asia has stamped its own distinct mark on America’s palate. Americans in cities fortunate enough to have a restaurant serving the cuisine of Laos have lustily embraced that distinctiveness. Alas, Duke City diners have had to trek to Amarillo’s LM Restaurant to partake of this relatively new trendy dining sensation.
So what’s the Cuisine of Lao like? It might help to understand that its closest “relative” is the cuisine of the Issan region of northern Thailand. New Mexicans who love their food a bit on the incendiary side would love Issan style Thai food which is more highly spiced than cuisine at other regions of Thailand. Spiciness aside, there are other differences between Thai and Lao cuisine. Where Thai food is colorful and exotic, Lao food is more basic and simple. Interestingly, the savory dishes of Laos are never sweet and the concept of “sweet and sour” is considered foreign and bizarre.
A Lao saying about its cuisine can be translated as “sweet makes you dizzy; bitter makes you healthy. The cuisine of Laos incorporates a wide variety of bitter ingredients including mint and dill, two herbs generally ignored by their neighbors. Other cooking herbs of vast importance in Lao cuisine are galangal, fish sauce, garlic, shallots and lemongrass.
Recent years have seen an increasing number of Asian restaurants in the Duke City serving more than one type of Asian cuisine. Sakura Sushi has the pedigree to do it well. Still, you wouldn’t expect to find Lao cuisine in a restaurant named Sakura Sushi until you read the “subtitle” on the marquee: Thai and Laos cuisine. You might visit for the sushi, but you’ll keep coming back for the Lao.
Located in in the former site of Asia Restaurant (which closed in 2007 after more than five years of inconsistent business), Sakura Sushi is owned and operated by Vong and Pialo Soumphonphakdy, both natives of Laos. Vong, who previously plied his trade as sushi chef at Minato’s (closed) Eurasia (also defunct) and Neko Sushi (also closed) artfully wields his knives behind the sushi bar at Sakura. His wife Pialo is the kitchen chef, preparing all the Thai and Lao cuisine.
The interior at Sakura reflects a Japanese theme more so than either Thai or Lao. The color palate includes wasabi green walls festooned with framed art depicting Geishas in their beautiful silk kimonos. During our inaugural visit, there were two things that told us this might be a special restaurant. The first was the loyalty of a gaunt septuagenarian seated at the table behind us. He dines at Sakura six days a week and has done so since the restaurant opened in the fall of 2007. We were determined to find out what engendered such loyalty.
That may have been answered with the second thing that struck us about Sakura Sushi. It was Vong’s sage-like conveyance of the rudimentary facets of sushi to a couple in their forties. That couple’s sole experience with sushi had been limited to eating sushi from Trader Joe’s. Under Vong’s tutelage, the couple went from sushi novices to sushi lovers in short order. It was fun to watch them become more and more adventurous as their dinner went on.
The menu currently features only seven Lao cuisine entrees with the better part of two pages dedicated to Thai cuisine. Not including sushi, there is also a page dedicated to Japanese cuisine as well as a page listing the sushi chef’s specialties. Appetizers include monkey balls (forget the double-entendre). Monkey balls are deep-fried wheat flour tempura balls stuffed with spicy tuna and mushrooms and served with a sauce comprised of fiery Sriracha, savory Japanese mayo, and sweet unagi sauce.
The monkey balls are terrific, but the sauce elevates them to a higher plain. It strikes a perfect balance between sweet, savory and piquant flavors and presents them subtly so that you’re able to experience each of these taste sensations individually and in combination with one another. This is the type of sauce you could literally put on anything and it would improve it.
Another fabulous appetizer is the Japanese ceviche served in a tall goblet. While the refreshing, bright dish of citrus-marinated seafood has its roots in South American cuisine, it is increasingly found in trendy menus everywhere. Conceptually Japanese ceviche is unlike its Latin American counterpart in that the seafood is (ostensibly) catalyzed by citrus juices, but beyond that there are discernible differences.
Sakura’s version includes shredded crab, butterflied shrimp and other sushi favorites such as tuna and salmon in a goblet showcasing micro greens, sesame seeds and spring mix lettuce. Thanks to the catalyzing of the seafood through the process of the limes’ citric acid pickling or “cooking” the seafood without heat, the seafood tastes more like a cooked entree and not like sashimi, Japanese raw fish.
One appetizer sure to pique your curiosity is a cheese and green chile egg roll. There are several things that make this an intriguing starter, not the least of which is the fact that cheese is not often used in Asian cuisine (save for that of India). At first glance, it looks like a traditional egg roll and indeed, it is served with Sakura’s plum sauce. Bite into it and you’ll be pleasantly surprised, but be forewarned. The cheese is gooey and hot. So is the chile. The plum sauce isn’t really necessary, but it’s several orders of magnitude better than most sweet and sour sauce.
A chef’s specialty needing no improvement is the Ruby Red Roll. Inside, this maki style roll is engorged with shrimp tempura, spicy tuna and Gobo, a Japanese root. On top, you’ll find fresh tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe) and sweet unagi sauce. The Ruby Red Roll earns its name. At first glance you might even mistake the tobiko with a fruit jam, but one taste and you’ll know for sure you’re partaking of briny, delicious roe. There are several inventive maki rolls on the menu, but you can also have sashimi or nigiri style sushi (vinegared rice topped with a bite-size, raw or cooked piece of either egg, fish, or other seafood.
Aficionados of pork sausage will quickly become besotted with Sakura’s Laos Sausage Special, a plateful of pork sausage sliced diagonally. This sausage has the type of unmistakable reddish coloring that comes from a smoking process. The sausage is somewhere between a slightly coarse-ground and a fine-ground texture. Insofar as taste, you’ll be able to discern scallions, garlic, lemongrass and a bit of chile. Overall the taste leans toward mild with just a hint of piquancy. This is very good sausage, somewhat reminiscent of Chinese sausage.
Sakura’s rendition of the national dish of Laos is also quite good. Every household in Laos has its own recipe for Laab, a minced salad crafted from your choice of ground pork or beef seasoned with lime juice, lemongrass, yellow and green onions, toasted puffed rice, rice powder, cilantro and mint. There is a synergy and freshness among the various ingredients. There is also a profusion of deliciousness in how those ingredients meld with and swim in the citrusy tanginess of more lime than you’ll ever find in a Thai version of this quintessential Southeast Asia salad.
Several years ago during one of our many visits to Lotus of Siam (the best Thai restaurant in America) in Las Vegas, Nevada, we fell in love with an Issan style beef jerky appetizer. Yes, beef jerky! It’s not something you see in many restaurant menus, but you will find a Lao version at Sakura. This is definitely not the desiccated hardtack quality jerky you might find at a gas station. It’s surprisingly moist, unbelievably delicious and roughly the dimensions of a small finger. Eight of these wondrously seasoned gems sit on a bed of thin noodles, carrots, broccoli, mushrooms and bean sprouts in a sweet-savory sauce you’d gladly lap up.
The Thai side of the menu includes Moo Todd, stir-fried pork fillets with Thai hot black pepper, garlic and sweet soy sauce. These may be the best pork fillets we’ve ever had at an Asian restaurant. On their own they’re special, but the accompanying sauce, an inventive mango and crushed peanut sauce, imparts even more flavor. The mango-based sauce is rich, piquant and sweet.
The Thai menu includes several curry dishes including a rather unique green curry which is available with beef, chicken, mussels and shrimp. Instead of the conventional greenish color, this curry is a brackish brown color. Perhaps the green is reserved for the New Zealand green-lipped mussels. There are eight of them on the dish along with green pepper, bamboo shoots, coconut milk and curry, of course. The curry has a rather mild flavor profile in that both coconut milk and chili are used in moderation.
While sticky rice is the preferred way to eat rice in Laos, you can also opt for pork-fried rice. Doing so will reward you with the second best fried rice dish in Albuquerque (behind the Chinese sausage fried rice at Ming Dynasty). This rice includes scallions, carrots, green beans and even niblets of corn. It has a pronounced smokiness resultant from having been fried in the chef’s fried rice sauce.
Dessert options include sweet rice with mangoes as well as green tea, red bean and plum wine ice cream. The plum wine ice cream is refreshing and delicious, flecked with bits of rich, sweet plum. In season, a popular choice is mangoes with sticky rice, a version quite different than you’ll find in the Duke City’s Thai restaurants. The coconut milk is unsweetened and thick, blanketing the mangoes and the black (it’s actually purplish) sticky rice which is naturally sweet. The mangoes and sticky rice offset the unsweetened coconut milk, providing a delicious and surprising contrast.
I don’t know if the cuisine of Laos will become the next “hot” thing, but I do know that if Sakura Sushi continues to do the things it did to impress us during our first and second visits, it has a chance to be a very successful restaurant in the Duke City.
Sakura Sushi Thai & Laos Cuisine
4200 Wyoming, N.E. C-2
Albuquerque, New Mexico
1st VISIT: 12 January 2007
LATEST VISIT: 23 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $$ – $$$
BEST BET: Monkey Balls, Laab, Laos Sausage Special (Pork), Ruby Red Roll, Plum Wine Ice Cream, Pork Fried Rice, Miso Soup, Green Curry, Lao Jerky, Mangoes and Sticky Rice, Green Chile and Cheese Roll