More than twenty-one years ago while slowly floating down the Mekong on a repurposed barge in Southern Laos, I made the decision to move to Asia. Six months later, I was in Seoul working in the largest law firm in Korea, and a few years after that I moved to Hong Kong.
I have been back to Laos, though not enough times, in the intervening years and have always appreciated its earthy, herb-rich cuisine that draws on the bounty of the Lao countryside.
So, I was excited when I learned some months ago that a Lao restaurant had opened in Hong Kong. Since then, I have visited the convenient location at Jade Centre on Wellington Street — accessed from below the Central-Mid Levels Escalator — a number of times.
The restaurant is in part a family affair run by a chef-owner who is apparently related to former Lao royalty. Reinforcing the homey atmosphere is the fact that many of the ingredients are prepared on site, often at unused tables while diners dine nearby.
Handpicked herbs are grown on the balcony that overlooks the escalator four floors below. The slightly relaxed disorder that imbues Laos Sisombath conjures the mellow, rural atmosphere of Laos itself even amidst the throngs of Central below. The fragrant, tasty, reasonably priced food helps too. The menu indeed offers a diverse selection of Lao cuisine and is divided into sections covering salads, rolls, snacks, vermicelli noodle soups, rice and curry dishes, plus drinks and desserts.
Amongst the salads, the Laos Super Spicy Beef Skin Salad (HK$58) stands out and is a must try; it is the dish that I make sure to order each time I visit. The presentation is similar to the many vegetable and dipping sauce varieties that you might find in Northern Thailand.
Here, a bamboo plate is presented with an array of fresh vegetables and a small cup of a thick, brown dipping sauce to the side. The dip is made from beef skin that has been slowly softened into a chewy, gel-like consistency and mixed with a good amount of chili, lime and other flavors. It is a unique dish with the soft, spicy beef skin a surprisingly apt complement to the plate of crispy, fresh vegetables. If you’re lucky, the staff will bring a few pieces of crispy fried skin for an added treat.
The rolls are, for the most part, Vietnamese-influenced rice paper rolls that come vegan (HK$38) or with shrimp (HK$48) or pork (HK$48). In contrast to typically neatly prepared Vietnamese rice paper rolls, those at Laos Sisombath are large and thick with a more homey presentation served cut into pieces. The shrimp roll is made with whole fried prawn combined with soft vermicelli noodles, crispy lettuce and cucumber and served with a satay-like peanut sauce in contrast to the more typical sweet sauce served in Vietnam. It’s a mouthful, and a good way to start your meal at Laos Sisombath.
The vermicelli noodle soups, ranging from HK$68 to HK$88 per bowl, also show the influence of neighboring Vietnam, and are reminiscent of that country’s ubiquitous pho. There are a number of varieties offered here, including beef, chicken, seafood, vegan, pork neck and even sausage and cuttlefish. The soup base, in contrast to pho, has more sour notes, though not as intense as an Assam Laksa from Malaysia. The noodles are thinner than those typically found in pho. Whereas pho with its light broth makes a good dish in a bowl for one, these soups at Laos Sisombath work better as items to share, allowing everyone to enjoy more of the variety on offer.
In addition to the beef skin salad, my other favorite dish at Laos Sisombath is the white curries, ranging from HK$68 to HK$78 each. Served featuring chicken, pork neck or vegetarian style, the white curry is a lighter flavored coconut-milk based curry seasoned with kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, herbs and just a little spice. The plating is generous with an ample portion of steamed red rice, fried potatoes, sliced bamboo and other vegetables to complement the subtle white curry.
In terms of the balance of the menu, I tried several of the snack items, which were tasty, though none stood out as much as the salads, rice and noodles dishes. The snacks include varieties of chicken wings, spring rolls, and fish cakes (ranging HK$38 to HK$48 each) — and can make good additions to a meal shared among a larger group, but I would stick to the other main menu items for smaller parties.
The one listed dessert item of mango sticky rice (HK$38) was sub-par compared to mango sticky rice in Thailand and at Thai restaurants in Hong Kong. The rice didn’t seem quite cooked enough, for one thing. On another occasion though, there was a dessert special of baked small purple sweet potatoes with a coconut sauce, which was delicious.
The extensive menu of hot and cold Lao soft-drinks (HK$17 to HK$19), such as rich Lao milk-tea and coffee, is also a good complement to the food. There’s also a section of “special drinks” (HK$24 each) that includes ginger-lemongrass water, Lao-style lemon coke, as well as longan and litchi sodas.
All and all, Laos Sisombath is a great addition to the variety of regional cuisines available in Hong Kong. The staff is friendly, the mood is homey, the food is delicious and the price is very reasonable. I would highly recommend trying it.
Featured cover image courtesy of Laos Sisombath HK
Laos Sisombath is at 4/F, Jade Centre, 98 Wellington Street, Central
+852 2117 0788
MTR: Central Station, approx. 8 minute walk
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for more than 20 years, with 15 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons, completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker and won the U.S. National Debate Tournament way back in 1991.
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