You can travel the culinary globe here in New York City, but until just two days ago, you’d be hard pressed to find Laotian food. “I’ve lived in all the boroughs except the Bronx and Staten Island,” says Soulayphet “Phet” Schwader, executive chef of just-opened Lao spot Khe-Yo at Duane Street and West Broadway. “There’s usually a pocket of people making a particular type of Asian food, but I haven’t seen or heard of a Lao restaurant.”
Schwader thought that dearth was a shame. He immigrated to the States from Laos when he was three, landing in Wichita, Kansas, where a Lao community still thrives. And there was no shortage of food from his home country there. “We had Lao grocery stores and Lao restaurants,” he explains. “I grew up with my mom cooking real Laotian home-cooking.”
When he landed in NYC after culinary school, he took a job at now-closed AZ, where he met Marc Forgione, eventually moving over to help expand the BLT empire. When he decided he was ready to do his own thing, he teamed up with Forgione to open Khe-Yo–named for the Laotian word for “green”–so that he could finally fill the hole in this city’s culinary fabric that he’d seen for years.
The Lao canon crosses Vietnamese and Thai cuisines, taking the best parts from both places. Spicy curries, tart papaya salad, and laap (which is very similar to laab, a chopped meat salad) meet whole grilled fish and rolls, and most dishes eat a bit lighter than versions you’d find elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Lao cooking is heavy on lime, lemongrass, and galangal, making each bite shine brightly and clearly. Dishes are served family style and with sticky rice, which, when done right, you can pull apart with your hands and eat like bread. And the Laotians love condiments–racy chili lime sauce, fish sauce, and, often, an earthy roasted tomato paste grace tables for most meals.
Schwader aims to capture those flavors at Khe-Yo–“I thought about all the dishes I grew up with that I love eating when I go back home,” he explains of his menu–but he’s also focused on sourcing top-quality ingredients, even if it means giving traditional recipes a bit of a tweak. A traditional water buffalo jerky served all over that country, for instance, emerges on this menu as beef, and it’s lighter and airier than what you’d find there. He’s using local fluke for a version of laap, and Berkshire pork for both the spare ribs and belly. But there’s a curry on the menu and a fairly classic papaya salad, too.
The board matches a drinks list replete with Beer Lao–a lager ubiquitous in Laos–cocktails spiked with coconut and lemongrass, and a well-edited wine selection heavy on high-acid whites that ideally match this type of food.
We stopped by for a taste, and some of the early crowd, lining black banquettes in the boxy brick-walled Tribeca dining room, seems a bit baffled–a couple of women sniffed at sticky rice between chopsticks despite instructions, both verbal and printed, to dig in with hands. In this age of global travel, though, most of the diners seem thrilled that they can now find this cuisine in NYC. Count us among them.
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