Laos is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia and sits at an interesting crossroads between Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, with the northern border touching Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province. Lao food overlaps most with Thai cuisine, and customers will find dozens of ostensibly “Thai” dishes at Kop Jai Lai in Mission Hills, though they do serve many Lao variations, plus distinct dishes that people won’t see at Thai restaurants in LA.
According to one estimate, 4,000 Laotian-American people were living in Los Angeles County at the time of the 2010 Census. Given the same head count tallied approximately 30,000 Thai-American people and 100,000 Vietnamese-American people, Laos has one of the smallest demographic representations of any Southeast Asian country. This explains why Lao food is so hard to come by locally.
Kop Jai Lai owner Mannie Sithammavong hails from Vientiane, Laos’s capital. Her husband runs an auto body shop in a strip mall near the intersection of the 405 and 118 freeways. When his landlord asked if they’d be interested in replacing a Chinese restaurant across the parking lot, his talented home cook wife jumped at the chance. Sithammavong may have even replied with kop jai lai, which means “thank you very much” in Lao. The restaurant opened in May and now presides over a space with red walls lined with framed Lao tapestries, and two-toned blue booths that house speckled tables.
Sithammavong views Lao as being closest to Thai food. She compares and contrasts the two cuisines, saying, “Because Laos is bordering northern Thailand, the food of Northeast Thailand (Isaan) has some similar dishes and flavor profiles to Lao food (for example larb). However, Thai food tends to have a more of sour, sweet, and spicy flavors. Lao food is saltier (ex: the papaya salad Lao style has salty crab compared to the papaya salad Thai style that is sweeter) that really accentuates the flavors of the ingredients in the dish. Thai food also has more coconut milk added than Lao food.”
Kop Jai Lai seems to serve many more Thai than Lao dishes, but much of the menu lingo comes down to semantics. “A lot of the time the dishes are the same or very similar between the two countries,” Sithammavong says. “The flavoring is what makes them different and since the Thai names are often more well known, it makes sense from a marketing standpoint to include those dishes on the menu.”
Kop Jai Lai does overtly devote a whole menu section to distinctly “Lao Specialties.” Mok pla ($9) is a good place to start. An herbaceous heap of spoon-soft steamed catfish fillets arrives folded with egg and scallions and infused with dill, lemongrass, and Makrut lime leaves. Steamed broccoli and sliced carrots are basic accompaniments for the mild, aromatic fish dish that calls for either sticky rice or steamed white rice.
Khao piak ($8) is the only soup at Kop Jai Lai that features thick, bouncy, house-made rice noodles resembling udon. The chicken broth is a bit cloudy from residual corn starch and flour used to cut and roll noodles, but not thick. Silky sliced chicken breast, fried garlic, scallions, and cilantro help to round out the bowl. Pork eaters will appreciate the option to add four chunks of crunchy fried “three-layer” belly.
Khao poon curry chicken ($8) could be khao soi’s cousin. Khao soi is a northern Thai coconut curry noodle soup that’s particularly popular in Chiang Mai that features egg noodles, a topside nest of fried egg noodles, and an array of crunchy, spicy, and tart condiments. At Kop Jai Lai, khao poon features a mild yellow curry paste, coconut milk, potatoes, sliced chicken breast, and springy rice vermicelli. This soup finds crunch in the form of raw cabbage, julienne carrots, and bean sprouts — and the effect is relatively enlightening. Kop Jai Lai also makes a version with red curry paste and catfish.
Lao sausage ($9) resides close to Chiang Mai on the flavor spectrum, and in terms of appearance. Sithammavong makes coarse, peppery pork links made on location with fragrant, bold ingredients like garlic, lemongrass, Makrut lime leaves, and chiles.
Sithammavong has strong memories of eating these sausages, and other Kop Jai Lai dishes, in Vientiane markets, mom-and-pop shops, and at her childhood home. She reminisces, saying, “People often go out to the fresh food market in the morning to buy these uncooked [sausages] to make at home or cooked to eat right away.” At Kop Jai Lai, she grills the sausages until the casings crisp and form a snap. They’re best eaten with raw ginger and roasted peanuts for a multi-layered bite.
Nem khao tod ($11) involves a plate of deep-fried rice balls that pack more chew than crunch. Sour pork chunks, scallions, cilantro, shaved red onions, roasted peanuts, and tart lime dressing all join the flavorful fray. Spoon onto lettuce rafts for added crunch.
Pork jerky ($9) is a welcome departure from the dry, desiccated jerkies available for sale by convenience store cash registers. Kop Jai Lai marinates sliced pork with white pepper, soy sauce, fish sauce, and rice powder. The meat is dehydrated for eight hours, intensifying the savory, umami-rich flavor, deep-fried, and served with murky red sweet and sour sauce mixed with fish sauce and chiles.
A sauce caddy features three options, two of them prepared on location: chile oil bombed with fried garlic to embolden noodle soups, and fried and ground chile powder that’s fiery, gritty, and good sprinkled on just about anything.
Kop Jai Lai isn’t the first Lao restaurant to operate in the City of Los Angeles, but is the only current practitioner. The next closest options would be Tasty Food to Go in Long Beach, Vientiane or Royal King Elephant in Garden Grove. Sithammavong takes her role as a Lao food ambassador seriously, and homesick compatriots are rewarding her comforting efforts.
Kop Jai Lai. 15423 Chatsworth St., Mission Hills, 818.891.1068