Luang Prabang, Laos reminds me of an artfully-crafted PB&J sandwich. Now you may be thinking “Did you just compare this UNESCO World Heritage Site to a sandwich?”. Why yes, yes I did.
The peanut butter in this metaphor is the French influence on the town. The French food and the architecture are constant reminders of the French colonization of the town long ago. The jelly in this case is the backpacker/ tourist community. Foreigners adorning t-shirts and locally made pants can be seen walking the streets in droves, occupying the many guesthouses and hostels that dot the town. This brings us to the bread, or the Laotian culture. The Laotians do a good job of holding on to their unique identity even in the midst of such strong influences.
Laotian culture, backpackers, and French colonialism are a seemingly odd mix but it works for this charming town. The best way to get a taste of all three (no pun) is through its food. Luang Prabang knows how to do food.
In our two weeks in Luang Prabang, one meal stood out as the metric by which we compared all subsequent food: the lunch we had at 3 Nagas. The first of the two buildings that comprise this restaurant/hotel is the Lamache House. Built in 1898 and later restored, this house was once the official supplier of ice cream to the Royal Court. The main lobby still holds a bottle filled with essence extracts that used to flavor the ice cream in that period.
The other house located on the Khan River side is called the Khamboua House. Built in 1903, it has eight uniquely styled and distinctive rooms. The traditional Lao architecture of this house makes it one of the more beautiful buildings on the street. 3 Nagas is steeped in Lao history, and the food is traditional Lao cuisine on an elevated level. From the service to the food and the scenery, the whole experience was exemplary.
We we first arrived on that sunny February day, we chose a seat in the shade provided by one of the two huge mango trees that flanked the front entrance. The day was perfect for dining outside but there is also an indoors portion of the restaurant across the street in case of inclement weather. The three waiters told us about the food in detail and answered our questions about LP in general. They knew enough English to hold a good conversation, and it was refreshing to get a perspective on the town from a local’s point of view.
Shortly after sitting and getting our drinks, we were brought out sun-dried rice cakes topped with spicy tomato sauce and a dill garnish. A tasty way to get things started.
Then, we began the Explorateur and Lao Degustation tasting menus, which we were told were a great way to try all of the unique, authentic Laos dishes. We started with the deep-fried Mekong riverweed with spicy buffalo jam. I was apprehensive about eating riverweed at first but it was actually pretty good. The buffalo jam was sweet and meaty with a bit of a kick, and added the perfect contrast to the bitterness of the riverweed.
The hero of the appetizers was the eggplant puree wrapped in fresh rice noodles and vegetables. It was a symphony of textures and flavors: crunchy, smooth, sweet, tangy, spicy, and savory all coming together to make a great snack.
Each of the tasting menus consisted of six traditional Lao dishes that were as eloquently presented as they were tasty. The Explorateur came with (clockwise) oua sikhay (minced pork with lemongrass and Lao herbs), khoua kai sai khing (stir-fried chicken with ginger and spring onion), mok paa (steamed fish in a banana leaf with Kaffir leaves and Lao herbs), naem tha deu (warm rice cake salad with pork) and steamed rice in the middle.
I enjoyed each of these impossible-to-pronounce delicacies. The rice cake salad was seasoned to perfection and tied with the minced pork for my favorite of the four dishes. That’s no slight to the stir-fried chicken though as it too was very good. I’m not a fan of fish other than salmon, but this steamed fish was really good: tender, flavorful, and delicious.
The Lao Degustation included (clockwise) mhok het (steamed mushroom in banana leaf with lemongrass and Lao herbs), khoua sine ngoua said kathiem (sautéed beef with garlic and onion in oyster sauce), phanaeng kai (minced chicken cooked in coconut milk and curry), tom sompaa (fish soup with lemongrass and galangal), and steamed rice.
I didn’t get a chance to have any of the fish soup because Erica finished it before I could grab a bite. Apparently it was that good. The chicken curry was sweet, savory, and slightly spicy. The beef was tender and cooked to perfection, the garlic and onions were just a very welcome bonus as I could have eaten the beef by itself! None of the food stuck with just one flavor profile. Each dish combined flavors in a fashion that was reminiscent of the city itself: a convergence of different things that just work well together.
To round out the meal we finished with banana fritters with vanilla ice cream and flambeed mango with orange and Lao Lao whiskey (a delight in itself). Again, it was a great marriage of flavors. The coating on the bananas was savory, the bananas and ice cream sweet, and the dark chocolate slightly bitter and sweet. When they came together it was a beautiful thing.
The fresh mango, covered in that warm orange whiskey sauce with the ice cream was as awesome as it sounds. This was a complex and complete meal that no other restaurant could match in our time there.
Anyone in Luang Prabang looking for a great meal doesn’t have to look too hard to find this place. Just outside of the gate sits a 1956 Mercedes Benz Model 190 and a 1952 Citroen Model 11, both apparently still in working condition. You can’t miss the restaurant, and it’s a must-try if you visit. It’s located on the main street in town, just up the road from the night market.
What restaurant do you consider to be truly authentic in your city?
Disclosure: Thanks to 3 Nagas for hosting us to lunch on our trip in Luang Prabang. As always, opinions are 100 percent our own.