It’s a stumper for even the most un-stumpable Asian food fanboys and girls. Where do you get good Laotian in New York City? In a city of good Yunnanese, good Malaysian, good Goan and good Hokkaido, the answer is not very obvious. Having attended college in Wisconsin, I was familiar with Laos’s fragrant and well-spiced cooking — there’s a large Laotian population in Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, and I would occasionally indulge with a bowl of insanely hot curry. A place I frequented metered spice with the following: * Timid ** Careful *** Adventurous **** Native Lao.
But for the most part I had forgotten about Laotian cuisine, having been drawn more to the restaurants of neighboring Vietnam and Thailand. This all changed rather suddenly (there was a sweaty brow involved) with the opening of Khe-Yo, a new restaurant located next to Weather Up on a quiet block in Tribeca. Chef-owner Soulayphet Schwader — "Phet" to his friends, including longtime pal Marc Forgione — has opened this restaurant as a tribute to his native land. When I asked Phet where he ate Laotian cooking before opening Khe-Yo he couldn’t answer. He was stumped too. “My house,” he joked. Well, it’s pretty obvious that his house now is Khe-Yo, and it’s a pretty exciting place. He told me a bit more about it.
Have you been surprised by the initial response, which seems to be really positive? Especially for a cuisine that is so new to New Yorkers?
I am surprised, and extremely grateful, for the overwhelmingly positive response so far. Although the cuisine is unique in New York, we're not reinventing the wheel — we try to keep it simple by putting out really good food while staying true to those traditional Laotian flavors.
OK, the big question many diners may have is: How is this cuisine similar to Thai and Vietnamese cooking? How is it different?
Laotian, Thai and Vietnamese cuisine are similar in many of the ingredients used (rau-rum, chilies). I guess what sets Laotian cuisine apart is the presence of sauces and "condiments" at every meal. Sitting down for dinner there are always little bowls to dip and spread from.
Many of the dishes were accompanied with these wonderful herbs and produce. The rau-rum, galangal, perilla and cilantro were so fresh and flavorful. Where do you source these and other ingredients?
I source a lot of it from a wonderful farmer named Tama. She's based out of New Jersey and grows some things for us that would be hard to find fresh otherwise.
The server often stressed for us to eat with our hands. Does sticky rice taste better when eaten with your hands?
We emphasize eating with the hands because it is the traditional Laotian way of eating — if I was a stickler, the guests would all be sitting on the floor too! We joke that the rice tastes better that way because if you open yourself to the entire experience you are likely to enjoy it more.
The bang bang sauce you offer at the start of the meal. Wow. What is in it, and how is this indicative of Laotian cooking?
The bang bang is made of garlic, lime juice, palm sugar, Thai chili, fish sauce and cilantro. It's one of those condiments I was mentioning that is so typical of Laotian cuisine. When you eat French fries, you need ketchup. When you eat sticky rice, you need bang bang.
How did you meet your partner Marc Forgione, and when did you start cooking Laotian dishes for him?
Marc and I met while working for Patricia Yeo at AZ. I first cooked this food for him when we were roommates back in the day.
Describe how the restaurant was conceived? Was it your idea and you approached Marc, or something else?
It had been an idea of mine to open a place, and the concept really came to life in a conversation with Marc. We were talking about how great it would be and he just said, "Okay, lets do this."
What are the two most personal dishes on the menu for you?
The coconut rice is very special to me because it's something that's always around at celebrations and gatherings. I'm also excited about the pork belly because we serve it here the way it would be served at home. Most of the time at a restaurant, even one in Laos, you would just get the belly served over the rice as a one-note dish. But here we serve it in components that allow you to create the perfect bite: the belly, the greens for bitter crunch, the rice and the mild summer gourd pork broth.
Khe-Yo, 157 Duane St., NYC, 212-587-1089, kheyo.com
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