Southeast Asian Restaurants on a Mission: Thailand, Laos & Vietnam

-by Marc D’Entremont

Four cities, three countries, four restaurants serving superior food, providing community training and accepting reservations – you’ll need one.

Hanoi’s Koto

The finest restaurant in Hanoi is also its most fascinating. Koto, next to the Temple of Learning, is in an elegant, three story French Art Nouveau townhouse. Opening at 11:30 a.m. it is full within the hour. Founded 20 years ago by concerned Australians and Vietnamese, it is a culinary training school and refuge for disadvantaged/abused/orphaned young adults. If I had not known this in advance, I would have assumed Koto simply had a well trained staff serving creative dishes at moderate prices. It was the best meal I had in Hanoi. (Cost for two was less than US$18.00).

Banana and flowers salad at Koto in Hanoi

Banana and flowers salad at Koto in Hanoi

Koto (Know One, Teach One), founded in 1996 by Australian Vietnamese Jimmy Pham, has set the standard for grassroots not-for-profit restaurant ventures. It’s appropriate that its fin de siècle townhouse is across the street from the thousand year old Confucian Temple of Learning. Yet instead of preparing students to serve the former kingdom, Jimmy Pham wanted to provide practical skills and a safe environment for Vietnam’s street kids and abused young adults.

Serving fine food certainly proves the efficacy of Koto’s training program. From the gleaming open kitchen come Vietnamese and Australian beef dishes of the freshest ingredients artfully presented. The refrigerated glass dessert case tempts diners, and its carrot cake is a moist classic worthy of any midwestern American bakery.

The result over the past sixteen years has won accolades and awards for Koto restaurant, its catering and baking service, cooking school and training program. Yet for Jimmy Pham the best reward has been to see his graduates go on to advanced positions in Vietnam’s fast growing hospitality sector as well as open their own restaurants, “The greatest accomplishment for the person who has helped you, is to see you stand on your own two feet and then, in turn, help someone else.”

Vientiane’s Makphet and Friends International

I tried to dine at Makphet three times during two trips to the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The first time it was closed for a Buddhist holiday, the next two times they were fully booked. I succeeded on my fourth attempt. Given the hype among food knowledgeable Laotians about this must-go-to restaurant, I was pleased that the experience was worth the wait.

Makphet in Vientiane, Laos

Makphet in Vientiane, Laos

In the brightly painted, modest dining room, the chalk board lists the daily specials, who’s on staff in the kitchen and the floor. The menu reflects what was freshest at the morning market. Grilled Straw Mushroom & Shallot Dip was earthy with smoky charcoal yet bright with cilantro and was a nice starter with sticky rice. Lao style Water Buffalo & Potato Stew was how one would imagine it made in a mountain village. The stew juices were rich in the flavors of garlic, onions, herbs and lean meat and the water buffalo itself appropriately tough.

A Stir-fry of River Fish, Fresh Green Peppercorns and Mustard Greens took full advantage of the Laotian penchant for seasoning with sprigs of green peppercorns. Both the flavor it gives to the dish and the burst of savory pepper in the mouth of the diner are pleasant. Grilled River Fish with Sesame & Orange Sauce had a nice balance between the smoky sesame oil and sweet orange.

Half portions are available for many dishes and prices are modest. Dinner for two was less than US$20. Makphet is part of Friends International’s network of training businesses. Founded by Australians and Cambodians in the 1990’s to help at risk children and young adults, its restaurants in both Cambodia and Laos have received international acclaim. A beautiful new cookbook lushly illustrated with both photos and original art has recently been published by Makphet, From Honeybees to Pepperwood. The book pulls together recipes from all the ethnic groups within Laos.

Bangkok’s Cabbages & Condoms

Cabbages & Condoms Restaurant, Bangkok, Thailand, is famous, amusing and serious. Founded by the nonprofit Population and Community Development Association (PDA), both the Bangkok restaurant and the Birds and Bees Beach Resort helps fund wide ranging educational projects throughout rural Thailand, not the least of which are family planning and sexual health. While the work is serious, the atmosphere in the lush garden oasis in downtown commercial Bangkok is lighthearted. Where else in Southeast Asia will there be a condom decorated Christmas tree, glass table tops covering mosaics made from multi colored wrapped condoms, along with arts, crafts, and good Thai food from the extensive menu. Lunch or dinner for two will range between US$15 – $25.

 

Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok

Cabbages and Condoms in Bangkok

 

Luang Namtha’s Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge

The mountains of northern Laos are stunning, especially in the cool mist of January. The lush tropical vegetation, rivers, streams and waterfalls hide from view pre-industrial age poverty among many remote ethnic villages. Yet the provincial capital of Luang Namtha teems with the abundance of food products one becomes accustomed to in Southeast Asia. In the middle are Laos rapid infrastructure development projects that will inevitably alter ancient ways of life.

Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge

Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge

Trekking first brought Karen and Andrej Brummer from New Zealand to Luang Namtha, just like nearly all visitors. Yet they soon felt a desire to remain and do something along with already busy careers that could be managed through the magic of cyber space. Inspired by other not-for-profit training restaurants they opened the Forest Retreat Bamboo Lounge. The cafe specializes in Western style/fusion sandwiches and salads importing ingredients such as cheeses and certain meats from Thailand but getting their produce locally. The best fresh fruit smoothies in Laos, with or without spirits, are at the cafe and excellent French Press pure Laotian coffee. The atmosphere is relaxed and inviting with free high speed wi-fi, good alternative music and an interesting international mix of customers. Most menu items range from US$2.50 to US$4.00 and hours are 7:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.

Working together with three local schools, and community projects, Karen and Andrej’s employees learn western cooking techniques, English language skills and assist in operating Forest Retreat’s trekking service.

There are many sage sayings concerning the humanity of providing for people with fewer advantages, but I’d add that for these four restaurants they take seriously the age old adage of providing nourishment for both the body and the soul.

*****

Editor’s Note: Original World offers private custom tours to Southeast Asia including Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. You can view sample itineraries on our website Southeast Asia Travel. Call 888-367-6147 to discuss your preferences for private tour development.

 

 

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