The Coffee Connoisseur
Ariya “Pop” Khamvongsa, Naked Espresso
There’s something brewing in Vientiane. On almost every street, young baristas are tamping down freshly ground Laotian coffee beans and serving up frothy cappuccinos and eye-opening espressos in stylish cafés that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan. It’s all a far cry from the open-fronted shophouses, chipped Formica tables and glasses of traditional coffee that used to represent the town’s café scene.
The catalyst behind Vientiane’s coffee revolution is 34-year-old Ariya Khamvongsa (or Pop), whose affable demeanour belies a steely determination to succeed. While studying in Sydney in 2001, Pop chanced upon Jamaica Blue, a trendy café in Darling Harbour. “I couldn’t understand why people would line up to buy coffee,” he recalls. “However, my curiosity was piqued, so I joined the queue!”
When Pop eventually received his brew, it was a revelation. “The best coffee I’d ever had,” he asserts. Riding the caffeine rush, the young student applied for a job at Jamaica Blue, where he went on to train as a professional barista.
Pop returned to Vientiane in 2012 to establish the first branch of Naked Espresso on Dongpalan Road. “Then, there were only a handful of cafés. Today, there are dozens,” he says. Yet despite the fierce competition, Pop has carved out a niche as the city’s leading coffee brand. “Laos has its own coffee plantations, but the focus is mass market. My interest is in taking control from farm to cup.” Currently, Pop sources raw beans, which he roasts, from small growers in Sam Neua and Xieng Khouang provinces. He also plans to start a plantation.
Naked Espresso now has several branches. Pop has also created a series of spin-offs, which opened this year: 30ml, which serves coffees, smoothies and Asian food; Bar to Bros, which offers coffees, cakes and a soon-to-open cigar lounge and bar on the second floor; as well as roasting facility 2nd Crack Roaster.
Other Notable Cafés
Café Ango – This brick-walled, plant-packed café serves coffees and teas in handmade ceramics, as well as dishes that blend Western and Japanese flavours, such as the avocado chicken salad rice bowl.
The Little House – Japanese expat Yoko Matsushima makes excellent drip coffee from beans she sources from remote villages and roasts at home. Sample some at this low-key venue with a Japanese aesthetic.
Under The Tree – The mismatched furniture, white walls and eclectic décor give this homely café a distinctly English country feel.
The Meat Lover
Serge Selbe, Pimenton
45-year-old Serge Selbe is the owner of Pimenton, a steakhouse and tapas bar located a stone’s throw from the vibrant Mekong riverfront area on Rue Nokeokoummane. The Lao-French national trained as a chef before working in hotel kitchens around the world; upon returning to Laos in 2012, he opened his restaurant. With its industrial décor, an open grill and a menu that includes tasty tapas, Spanish charcuterie and prime steaks, it has been consistently busy since day one.
However, Serge had to overcome many challenges in landlocked Laos. “The main problem is the supply of good produce. We try to use local ingredients, but there’s no consistency,” he says. In true entrepreneurial fashion, Serge decided to start making his own 28-day dry-aged meats, Parma-style hams, sausages and more. “This is a tough business,” he shares. “You have to be energetic and bring something new to the table.”
Last year, Serge’s tenacity led him to open Lao Fresh Meats, a butcher shop with branches on Samsenthai Road and opposite Hua Kua market, each of which sells pork and beef reared and slaughtered at his own livestock units on the outskirts of the city. “It is the first international-standard facility in Laos and gives customers confidence in the traceability of their meat,” he says.
Demand for his quality meat is high. He already supplies numerous hotels around the country; with a new contract to supply hydropower projects in Xayaburi and Thakhek, plans for expansion are in the works. What’s more, he’s also working with the New Zealand government to improve the breed of local cattle. The long-term aim is a brighter future for the city’s emerging culinary scene.
ATMO – This recent reincarnation of French restaurant L’Atmosphere plates up bistro fare against a backdrop of bare brick walls, concrete and – if you catch the right night – live jazz.
La Signature – Arguably the best French food in town can be found at this restaurant within the Ansara Hotel. The à la carte menu includes warm goat’s cheese salad with Bayonne ham, and côte de bœuf with gratin Dauphinoise.
Soul Kitchen – Italian chef Andrea Caletti provides a warm welcome and an extensive menu of handmade pizzas, from classic Margherita to the Jimi Hendrix-inspired Voodoo Child.
The Sweet Dreamer
Vincent Permingeat, Parfums Chocolats
Just off Dongpalan Road, you’ll find Parfums Chocolats, owned and run by Frenchman Vincent Permingeat and his Laotian wife, Bee. Opened in April this year, the shop-cum-café is dominated by three chilled display cabinets, which keep Vincent’s edible art at the optimum temperature. There’s also a trio of tables where visitors can sit and enjoy a coffee, hot chocolate or a fresh pastry, along with a platter of chocolates.
Self-effacing and light-hearted, Vincent acknowledges that making chocolate in Laos is a crazy idea, but he was unable to resist the sweet temptation of being the city’s first chocolatier. “Heat and humidity are two of the worst enemies of chocolate, and both are constant elements in Vientiane,” he says. “After a year of trial and error, I not only succeeded in making my first bonbons, but also gained a greater understanding of chocolate-making.”
Vincent has since grown into a gifted alchemist who embraces local ingredients purchased from farmers, such as ginger, turmeric, chilli, butterfly pea flowers, hibiscus, Asian basil and dracontomelon fruit, which he then combines with cocoa butter imported from Madagascar and Venezuela. The result? A tempting array of exquisite chocolates that champion the diverse flavours of Laos.
To The Market
Khua Din Market – Get a taste of daily life in Vientiane at this bustling early-morning market, which offers a wide array of fresh produce and flowers. Make sure to get there early though, as it tends to wind down by 8am.
Behind Central Bus Station
Vientiane Organic Market – Held on Wednesday and Saturday, this regular organic market sees Laotian farmers sell a range of organic produce from 6am to 12pm.
Sao Market – This cavernous indoor space – comprising an air-conditioned mall and the original market – offers textiles, clothes, bags and electronics.
Lane Xang Ave
The Slow Food Champion
Pompailin “Noi” Kaewduangdy, Doi Ka Noi
But where does local food feature within Vientiane’s culinary renaissance? According to 38-year-old Ponpailin Kaewduangdy (or Noi), authentic Laotian food is not receiving the attention it deserves. “There are more dining options in Vientiane today,” shares the chef-owner of Doi Ka Noi restaurant on Soi Sapang Mor. “However, our own cuisine is becoming debased by fusion fare, fast food, international restaurants, chefs using poor ingredients and a generation of teens who would rather eat pasta and pizza than an authentic goy pa spicy fish salad.”
Noi (who – full disclosure – happens to be married to the writer of this article) also feels there is too much influence from nearby Thailand, with Laotian dishes becoming sweeter and the rise of one-dish meals, such as pork with holy basil, which aren’t Laotian. “A shortage of good Laotian chefs means kitchens are often headed by Thais,” she explains. “Inevitably, the flavours change.”
Noi only opened Doi Ka Noi two years ago; however, she has quickly gained respect for her uncompromising approach to Laotian cuisine – she refuses to adjust her recipes for those who cannot eat spicy food. Her menu, which changes daily, features just eight or nine traditional dishes dictated by the seasons and the availability of produce found every morning at Khua Din market. Just steps from the kitchen, an organic garden and free-ranging hens also provide fresh ingredients.
Free from the constraints of a fixed menu, Noi showcases foraged ingredients such as hed bee, a bracket fungus with an earthy flavour; young galangal shoots with hummingbird tree flowers; and rare varieties of sticky rice, such as khao pare daeng sourced from farmers in Vang Vieng province.
Ironically, if Doi Ka Noi were in Europe, Noi’s philosophy would have foodies beating a path to her door. But here in Vientiane, she’s probably a decade ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, the talented chef’s reputation, like her garden, is growing organically. Noi is the first Laotian member of global food movement Slow Food, which aims to preserve local food cultures and traditions. Earlier this year, Danish celeb chef and two-time MasterChef winner Timm Vladimir came to Noi when he wanted to learn about Laotian food. “My culinary journey is a slow process of natural development, but it’s all the better for it,” she says.
Lao Kitchen – The colourful, open-fronted shophouse offers a menu of traditional dishes, but with flavours and spice levels better suited to the tourist palate.
Nang Kham Bang – Run by third-generation owners, this simple venue serves up a delectable range of traditional sausages, soups and spicy curries.
Mekong Riverfront – This promenade is lined with stalls cooking up grilled fish, ribs and sausage, best eaten alfresco with the ubiquitous Beerlao.
Quai Fa Ngum Rd
This article was originally published in the December 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine