Houston Restaurant Offers Warming Touch of Laotian Cuisine on Shepherd

Nam Khao at Sao Lao Thai Cafe.

You might already be familiar with Sao Lao Thai Café‘s origins, even if you’ve not yet visited. The brick-and-mortar restaurant at 5013 North Shepherd evolved from the Pho-jita food truck. Pho-jita served not only Thai food, but also Mexican-fusion dishes, which were not carried over to the permanent location. When it opened, we were so impressed with both the cuisine and friendly service that we had no qualms naming Sao Lao Thai Café as one of the Best New Restaurants of 2021, even though it had only been open for a month.

The revised menu focuses on food from chef/owner Souli Phaduangdet’s Laotian (Isan) heritage. Sao Lao is a cozy casual concept in a standalone, brick building with ample parking. This expanse of North Shepherd borders Shepherd Park Place and Independence Heights that is home to several Houston institutions such as Esther’s Cajun Café & Soulfood, Wabash Feed & Garden Store and B & W Meat Company, as well as pick-a-part auto yards, fast food joints and old diners. The restaurant and its memorable food is a welcome addition to the area.

Red Curry at Sao Lao.
Red Curry at Sao Lao. Photo by Ryan Baker.

While Thai restaurants are abundant in Houston, cuisine from neighboring Laos is less known. Phaduangdet describes the food as familiar but less sweet, a little spicier and with heavier use of fish sauce. In general, the heat level is comfortable but lasting, and you may find yourself with small beads of sweat on your forehead. Of course, you can always request a higher heat level if desired.

At Sao Lao, Phaduangdet is presenting many of her own comfort foods, and several are part of a deeply personal backstory. “My mom died of cancer when I was very young. She was only 36,” she shares. “I remember teaching me [how to cook] in her kitchen, and those are the only memories I have of her. All the different dishes remind me of her.”

Boat Noodles at Sao Lao.
Boat Noodles at Sao Lao. Photo by Ryan Baker.

In fact, there is only one dish her mother didn’t teach her: Boat Noodle Soup. “It’s my most challenging dish, because it is the one I had to teach myself without my mom,” she says. “It took me seven years, because it has 40 different ingredients. It is a very popular dish. They call it boat noodles because they used to sell it on the canals in Thailand. It is both one of my favorite and most-hated dishes in the whole wide world because it took me so long to make it right.” Despite requiring so many ingredients to make the broth, the flavors are mellow with earthiness and some spice. The added ribeye, pork meatballs, kale, celery and bean sprouts are flavorful enough to make their presence known in the broth. 

The boat noodles are popular, but it was another dish that launched the original food truck: Laotian chicken noodle soup. “I love the Laotian chicken noodle soup a lot,” Phaduangdet says. “When I was a hairdresser, I would bring it to the salon and everybody was asking to try it.” From there, she started to sell it out of the shop and had an idea: “You know, I don’t want to sell it here anymore. I want to open a food truck.” The soup is another connection with her late mother, too. “Just this year, I came to find out that when my mom was living in the refugee camp, she had a food stall where she sold the soup. I feel like she has been with me my whole life,” said Phaduangdet.

The rest of the menu isn’t long, but covers a variety of tastes. The chef enthusiastically recommends the nam khao (a personal favorite of mine), which is fried rice with bits cooked extra crispy. The combination of ingredients creates a full spectrum of — surprisingly — gentle flavors including mild heat and dry spiciness from the curry, sourness from the fermented pork and nuttiness from coconut shreds.

Thai Chicken Basil at Sao Lao.
Thai Chicken Basil at Sao Lao. Photo by Ryan Baker.

There is also Lao sausage with sticky rice, a shredded papaya salad, and Thai Chicken Basil: stir-fried chicken with Thai chilis, fresh basil, jasmine rice and topped with an egg. The red curry offers a rich and creamy take on the traditional, coconut milk-based sauce, which functions as a lush backdrop for sliced rib eye, bell peppers and purple eggplants.

Phaduangdet’s energetic and personable nature are as much part of the dining experience as the food. Regardless of how busy the restaurant is, Phaduanget comes out of the kitchen to greet as many guests as possible, treating them like regulars by the end of their first meal. This exchange makes dining at Sao Lao fulfilling on a number of levels.

Sao Lao is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The restaurant does not have a website, but frequently posts updates on Instagram.

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