Finding Lao cuisine — the true, authentic version of it — is difficult. That's what makes AJ Asian Kitchen in El Monte so special. There aren't any restaurants in L.A. County dedicated solely to food from Laos, though a few restaurants that serve Laotian dishes are scattered around Hollywood and Orange County’s Little Saigon.
Opened in September on a stretch of Garvey Avenue known for Vietnamese pho slingers, taquerias and Mexican markets, AJ Asian Kitchen bills itself as Thai, Lao and Vietnamese — but it's the Lao dishes you should be ordering.
Chef Samone Souksamlane, who hails from Laos' capital city of Vientiane, says she and partner Joey Anoulak (the namesake for "AJ") opened the restaurant to serve Lao dishes “because you have to go a long way” to find them otherwise. For now, there are just six items on the menu under Lao specialties, but Souksamlane and Anoulak plan to add more dishes in the future.
If you’ve eaten Thai food, you might be familiar with a couple of Lao dishes without even realizing it. Larb, the dish of minced meat mixed with herbs, spices and rice powder, originated in Laos, as did papaya salad, that refreshing mix of sweet, savory and sour flavors. Understandably, there is some crossover between Lao food and that of neighboring Thailand. The similarities become even more pronounced when the food is compared against food from the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand, an area that borders Laos. Even so, there are key differences that set Lao cooking apart.
Talk with Souksamlane and she’ll give you the lowdown on those distinctively Lao traits: The larb is made from beef and has bits of tripe mixed in, which is great for offal lovers, and the Lao papaya salad features crab instead of shrimp and uses distinct herbs and spices (such as Lao basil, which is entirely different than Thai basil), as well as the country's own versions of fish sauce and fish paste (padaek). Since Laos is the only southeast Asian country without a coastline, the fish sauce and padaek are made from freshwater fish.
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In addition to the larb and papaya salad, there’s nem kao tod — crispy rice with small chunks of Lao-style sour pork sausage, peanuts, scallions, chilis, coconut and lemongrass — and hand-stuffed Lao sausage, made from sour pork mixed with glutinous rice and seasoned with lemongrass and makrut lime leaves, served with a tomato dipping sauce. While you can find the former at Night + Market and sister restaurant Night + Market Song and the latter at both of those as well as at Isaan places such as Lacha Somtum and Isaan Station, AJ Asian Kitchen has another Lao national dish not so easily found: mok pa. A fish filet rubbed with fennel, lemongrass and a whole slew of other herbs and spices is bundled up in a banana leaf, then steamed; the dish is wholly unique and totally Lao. And no Lao meal would be complete without sticky rice served in a traditional basket.
AJ Asian Kitchen (CLOSED), 9805 Garvey Ave., El Monte; (626) 328-8907.