Iowa has long suffered from a chronic lack of traditional Asian cuisine. With an overabundance of greasy Panda Express-like food and subpar California rolls, it’s difficult to find a restaurant delectable enough to satisfy the palates of true Asian food enthusiasts. However, a game-changer resides in an unsuspecting building on the fringes of West Liberty: Laos Cafe.
It’s evident upon walking into Laos Cafe that the restaurant hasn’t been open for very long. Located in a relatively quaint space, the eclectic decor and occasional missing tablecloth hint that the owners may still be getting settled. Indeed, the restaurant has only been open for a few months, yet what it lacks in cohesive design, it makes up for in character. Laos Cafe strays from the path of well-furnished but bland chain restaurants, instead paying homage to the owners’ Laotian roots through paintings, tapestries and artifacts from across southeast Asia.
In addition to Laotian culture, Laos Cafe brings dishes unprecedented in West Liberty. The sign above the entrance reads, “Experience flavors from far away,” which is fitting in a town known for its large Latinx population and its equally large assortment of Mexican restaurants. (As of 2017, less than 3 percent of West Liberty residents identified as Asian-American, while nearly 50 percent were Hispanic or Latino.) Because the head chef attended culinary school in Thailand, the menu includes Thai and Vietnamese favorites, like “drunken noodles” and pho, as well as Laotian dishes.
Growing up eating homemade Vietnamese food, I’ve become cautious when trying Asian restaurants in the Midwest, acknowledging that I’m far more likely to be disappointed than delighted. However, Laos Cafe’s family owned, homey nature quelled any nervous thoughts I had. My waiter was attentive, kind and ready to recommend his favorites, informing me that the special of the day was Yum Seafood ($10) and his favorite dish was the Pad Kee Mao with chicken ($11), both of which I ordered in addition to an appetizer of Spring Rolls ($5).
Upon tasting my appetizer, I was delighted. After hastily devouring the spring rolls, I remarked that these carefully constructed bundles of joy invoked memories of consuming similar dishes lovingly made by my Vietnamese father. The rice paper-wrapped noodles, vegetables and shrimp, accented by a light peanut sauce, could easily have been made in my kitchen at home.
While the spring rolls were a pleasant introduction, entrees are where Laos Cafe truly excels. From thick, homemade, hand-cut wide noodles to cilantro delicately placed atop each dish, each detail was meticulously attended to, creating a dining experience that was both beautiful and delicious. The flavorful, vegetable-filled Pad Kee Mao easily rivals the drunken noodles of nearby Iowa City restaurants Thai Flavors and Thai Spice.
Because some Laotian dishes are known for being spicier than the average American palette can handle, the waiter kindly warned us ahead of time that our Yum Seafood would be a bit hot. He wasn’t wrong; I urge any visitors to not make the same mistake I did of taking their warnings lightly. However, once again, I found myself continuing to reach for more, even as I downed several gulps of water in between each bite.
Laos Cafe is a gem for those that have grown tired of orange chicken or are simply looking to try food from another culture. Though it’s young, Laos Cafe has worked diligently to expand its selection of dishes, evidenced by the new menu boasting a large assortment of appetizers, stir fries, curries and soups, and its Facebook page that posts new specials each day it’s open (Tuesday-Sunday). Moreover, the owners plan to expand the currently cramped space in coming months, which will only enhance the dining experience for its growing fanbase.
Bring lots of friends, a healthy appetite and perhaps an extra water bottle to take the edge off the savory, spicy cuisine.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 270.