In autumn of 2013, New York City was abuzz with talk of Khe-Yo, a new restaurant offering a glimpse into the world of Lao food. Its head chef, Soulayphet Schwader grew up in Wichita, immigrating with his family in the mid-1970s. In many interviews, Schwader waxed poetic about the large Lao population in town and the numerous great Lao restaurants Wichita provides.
This came as a surprise to me because the only Lao restaurant in Wichita I’m aware of is tucked away at the end of an old strip mall, hidden behind a newer strip mall, in the heart of Wichita’s not-insignificant Lao population center.
Thai Lao Cafe is part restaurant, part dance hall. Once your eyes adjust to the dim interior, you’d be forgiven for being a little nervous at the sight of the five cheap plastic tables that serve as customer seating as well as another collection of tables in the other half of the restaurant that serve as the prep area. The kitchen is so small that it appears it can hold only one cook.
Sending that cook into action will produce interesting but flawed renditions of popular Lao dishes, in large part because of the homemade noodles used in half of the limited menu. They eschew the rubbery texture found in the prefabricated flat noodles found at other restaurants but at the expense of being overcooked and clumpy. Looking past that, you’ll be presented with sizable amounts of popular Thai and Lao dishes. Several of them – the nam tok, lad na, and pad see ew – are simple takes on sauteed meat and veggies, leaving variations in the sauce (or lack thereof) to serve as the delineator. They’re all homey and fulfilling.
Exploring the rest of the menu will reveal more interesting discoveries. You can’t get the larb cooked to anything less than medium, but the dish – marinated ground beef with chiles, cilantro, green onion and lime – is pleasurable in its simplicity. Likewise, the Lao beef jerky was little more than deep fried strips of flavorful beef, and the meat is too rich for an average person to finish a whole portion.
Even the homemade noodles find a reprieve in the kao piak, a straightforward chicken noodle soup with the liquid preserving the slight chew to the noodle that keeps it as its best.
With as slapdash as the restaurant aspect of Thai Lao Cafe appears to be, it’s difficult to believe that it has existed since at least 2000. Things become a little easier to understand with a search on YouTube, which results in videos of many crowded concerts and parties at the restaurant. The large Lao population Schwader talks about uses Thai Lao Cafe as a spot for social, food and nightlife gatherings.
Ratings reflect the critic’s judgment of the food, service and atmosphere in relation to the price. If you would like to nominate a restaurant to be reviewed, call 316-268-6327.
Thai Lao Cafe
Where: 2433 S. Hillside, 316-686-4166
Hours: Hours on Facebook are listed as 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily Monday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, but the restaurant appears to be open whenever the owners feel like turning the sign on.
Type of food: Lao