Wednesday, June 6, 2012

street food at food street

Everyday at around 5PM, Sisavangyong Road in Luang Prabang is closed to vehicular traffic and the Night Market opens for business. Near the end of that road is an alley everybody calls Food Street. You'll know you're in the right place when you see a building with a table flanked by "Bakery" signs in front, with some marked-down breads and pastries laid out. Banana cake at half price, anyone?

At the mouth of the alley, there may or may not be this lady who makes fresh, hot biscuits right on the sidewalk. (We saw her on Monday, and then she was absent the next nights.) Fantastic packaging-- completely biodegradable!

Along the sides of the alley are tables groaning under the weight of all sorts of edibles.

The highlight of Luang Prabang's Food Street is the buffet. The rules are simple. Pay the lady 10,000 kip (US$1.25), grab a plate and fill it to capacity and beyond using all the skills you acquired during the 1980s at the Wendy's salad bar. You're only allowed one turn, so make the most of it.

At the time we were there, we saw at least four purveyors of this type, practically shoulder to shoulder in that narrow alley. They're all vegetarian buffets, although it's not indicated on any of the signs. Each table has at least six shapes of noodles, four colors of rice, an respectable assortment of stir-fried and braised veggies, and some fresh fruit slices which were the most popular items of all.

If you want meat, the buffets' neighbors offer whole roast chickens stuffed with banana leaves, charcoal-grilled fish and pork, and the ubiquitous fried spring roll. They're extras and cost more than the actual buffet.

On our first night, we tried the grilled freshwater fish. It was obviously very fresh and nicely cooked, but unfortunately, a chore to eat with all those tiny bones.

If the buffet doesn't appeal to you or if you'd rather just nibble on a snack, there's some gyoza, Thai som tam (papaya salad) and mystery meat in tube form.

I saw a lot of housewives buying cooked food for their families' supper. This is quite common in many Asian households where both parents work long hours and nobody has time to prepare meals anymore.

There was one dish that threw me for a loop: Stinky guts stew interspersed with stinky "unborn" eggs. I consider myself an adventurous eater, but I really could not abide the eau de sweaty gym socks scent.

Actually, one of my favorites thing to eat in Luang Prabang was not in Food Street, but just a few meters from it. It's the Lao interpretation of the Vietnamese banh mi-- a baguette stuffed with paté, cold cuts, tofu, tomato and cucumber, and slathered with mayo and chili sauce.

The sandwich costs 10,000 kip (US$1.25), same as the buffet, but it's a generous size-- enough for two people to share. And of course, it's made with love by the friendly baguette lady.

Verdict: I know that many people who have been to Luang Prabang will disagree with me, but I found better value and yummier options at eateries near the intersection of Sisavangyong and Saccharine, and along the banks of the Mekong and Nam Khan. The food being sold at Food Street is cheap and visually interesting, but it's just not the best-tasting. Sorry. But certainly, one must have at least one meal there.

I highly recommend the baguette sandwich, though. The bread is denser than the Vietnamese version, and the crust is not as crispy, but it absorbs sauces nicely. I ate it everyday, and I even took one back to Bangkok.

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