It is rare to find Laotian food in southern California, let alone Orange County and San Diego. Therefore, when friends tell me how good Sang Dao is (I have bookmarked it for years!) it is time to visit. Situated in a strange little plaza, the parking can be frustrating, however, we get there early — they open at 10.30am — and have no problem finding a spot.
It is difficult for a restaurant to serve a completely Laotian menu mostly due to the lack of knowledge with the cuisines, so you’ll find most menus will lean heavily towards the more familiar northern Thai (or Issan) dishes as well. What I love about food from this region is that it is not sweet like that of central Thailand.
Of course the friend who brings me here gets right down and immediately orders Som Tum ($6.95), papaya salad Lao style. Shredded papaya is tossed together with chile, tomato, dried shrimp, green beans, lime juice but be careful Lao style is highly pungent with a fermented fish sauce that might be offensive to those who are uninitiated. If you aren’t sure, order the Thai style just to be safe. The papaya is nicely marinated but still retains a lovely crunch. It is indeed pungent.
We quickly get down to business, ordering a table full of dishes. We all partake in choosing our meal and since everyone loves chicken wings, Golden Wings ($7.95) is a must. They are perfection, juicy and moist on the inside, so crispy on the outside. Be careful as they will scorch your lips. The sauce is a tad too sweet for me, so I use another which accompanies our next dish.
Pla Tod ($9.95) is a crispy whole fried fish topped with cilantro and garlic. It is so flavorful we devour it, asking for more of the aromatic, tart dipping sauce we are using with everything. I end up buying some to bring home it is THAT good.
One of my best friend’s mom makes jungle curry and it is so spicy and delicious, I have not found one as good as hers outside of Thailand. Jungle Curry Soup ($8.95) here is decent, definitely not as spicy, but still very good. It is filled with ingredients you will usually find in a curry, such as Thai eggplant, mushrooms, baby corn to name a few, but without coconut milk.
Beef Salad is one of the staples whenever we visit a Laos/Thai establishment, but today, I order Neua Num Tok ($8.95), a similar dish but sprinkled and tossed with toasted rice powder. The charbroiled steak is packed with flavor while the salad is beautifully seasoned with chile and lime juice. The rice powder thickens and coats the entire dish when mixed in and combined with the juices. We want another but have so much food on the table.
Khao Peak Sen ($6.95), a thick home made rice noodle soup with pork blood, chicken, green onion and cilantro is new to me, but one of my dining companions orders this because it is one of his favorites. The chicken soup is hearty and so packed with flavor. The crispy fried shallots take it to another level. That ubiquitous sauce we use on everything makes for a great seasoning when mixed into the soup, however, we later find out that the myriad of condiments on the table are yours for the taking to create your own flavors.
I love southeast Asian cuisine and Sang Dao definitely hits the mark. Between them and Vientiane here in Orange County, I’m set when it comes to northern Thai/Lao cuisine.
5421 El Cajon Blvd
San Diego, CA 92115