Arriving in Pakbeng Laos is always a joyous occasion, even if the only reason for that is anticipation of rest for bruised weary buttocks, and potential for ritual evening ablutions, and possibly even a shave.
Buttocks rested, hairy bits shaved, one feels almost ready to take on the world, and what a wild world it turns out to be if you head to downtown Pak Beng.
One very quickly realises that one must compromise when it comes to food.
Find a place, quickly, and eat.
If it's raining, plan to get wet, then find a place quickly, and eat.
There is a saying in slow places that always starts with the name of the place and ends in "time"
Broome Time, Pakbeng Laos Time, Krabi time.
This is not some form of Gregorian measurement for the space time continuum – it just means that the lazy locals (and imported workers) who provide goods and services have no need to move their ass, even in strange or trying circumstances (such as a customer placing an order).
There are good and bad in every batch, but in Pakbeng Laos it will almost always take 30 minutes or more to get fed if you order anything a-la-carte no matter where you go.
In some places this is the courtship period and can even extend to first drinks or taking of orders.
In Pakbeng you should ideally pick some place halfway up the street before it gets too busy and entertain yourself with other (later) angry guests trying to get something to eat while you are sitting back, replete enjoying the show.
Even though I knew this, I made the fatal error of looking out at the pelting rain and deciding to go 8 metres across the road to this Indian restaurant instead of 7 minutes down the street..
Wow. How that small decision changed the course of my life.
There was a table of 6 and a table of 2.
I joked about getting our order in before 'the big table'.
This is no longer referred to as 'my sense of humour', but now as 'my 25 years of hospitality experience'.
We ordered two curries, a steamed rice and two naan bread.
This turned into a 55 minute foodless wait during which we had to attack the bottle of wine that we had asked the owner to chill for us in his freezer.
(He also owns the wooden pole homes across the road with spectacular views down the river)
I must say that I really enjoy staying in these places – the views down the river are incredible and for $25 a night with a huge open balcony, hot shower, fan, ample power points and a comfy bed – I'll be back.
The accom, yes, but the restaurant?
He's a lovely guy and very accommodating, but "Dude – Where's my meal"?
The curries came, and eventually a bowl of steamed rice unwillingly made its way from the kitchen to join us some 15 minutes later.
My charming companion had chowed down into her bowl like a rottweiler eating a twinkie, but I was taking measured half-spoonfuls while I waited for completion of my order. I had a mental image of the orgasmic experience about to become mine – my exotic Indian treat but minutes away.
I was awaiting my naan bread, which in my mind I was folding and using as a sponge to mop up the curry gravy and consume with all of my senses.
Naan bread characterises everything that is right with Indian cuisine, if not cuisine generally.
Fresh, soft, supple and aromatic, the stretchy silken dough lends itself to the high temperatures of the tandoor, taking on a texture that lingers on the memory as well as the palate. It elevates a normal curry into Ambrosia – food of the Gods.
Left out for an hour, most Indian chefs would recoil in horror at the thought of using it, and would beg forgiveness as they stretched another ball of dough and made the order fresh.
THIS Naan bread was the worst bread I have ever had. It was even worse than the standard doughy, pale coloured, semi-leavened torpedoes that get sold as Lao baguette.
For mopping up my curry gravy I would have been better off trying to fold Pringles Crisps or Aluminium Foil and drag them across my plate to absorb the remnants of the dish.
They looked cooked, frozen, microwaved and re-baked in a domestic oven. In fact, the only thing worse than the plain naan was the cheese naan which had a small(ish) dice of processed cheddar scattered on top like yellow orange tents on a beige desert landscape.
If you are in Pak Beng, order a naan bread – just for a laugh.
You could frame one of these, or bring it back, file the edges and use it as a hub cap. In fact I'm sure I saw the other naan I ordered from here being used as a shield on "Clash of the Titans".
Enough of the Naan.
But once seen, it cannot be unseen. Sort of like the Gorgon. Except the Naan turned to stone, not me. Naan Perseus? Perhaps a new variety.
This (below) is a standard menu in Pak Beng.
I would say avoid anything not particularly Lao. At breakfast time it's hard but stick with the noodle soups, which are often not advertised on the menu.
For me, a hard choice between the Sheese and the Plain Omette
Unfortunately, being a chef, people tell you when the food is shit.
After the first few years (from 16-19 when you know everything and need no customer or employer feedback) you either give up, or get used to it and improve.
This painful learning curve instills in one a deep knowledge of when the fish is not cooked, the bread too doughy, the pastries not cold enough when handling etc.
No matter how I try to rationalise it, the croissants and Danish in Laos are shit.
The ones in Pak Beng are particularly bad and have none of the many quality points that one would normally assess the crescent shaped beasts on.
Soft, not crisp. Single layers, not many. Poor colour. Floppy and flaccid like…..a Laotian croissant.
The ham croissant also laid there like a crocodile at a swimming hole, waiting to entrap the unwary.
Not only did it fail to be shaped in a crescent, it also failed to have any resistance to gravity.
It slumped like a drunk slug crawling across a block of salt.
To be fair it did have a layer or two around the outside.
"So what?" you ask, as the casual observer questioning the Croissant-Nazi.
Laos has some great food and even Pak Beng has a few decent options – but the coffee, bread and pastries do not number amongst them.
And the Indian option?
He DID ask us if we were leaving the next morning or staying in Pak Beng – a weird question as everyone in Pak Beng is there overnight only and leaving the next day. I now realise it was to see what his time frame was for delivering dinner.
THIS is the way to go if you are not keen on having a flaccid pastry oozing it's contents into your mouth first thing.
The noodle soups and fried rices are OK – even though most places will try and sell you a fried rice to take away as a lunch pack.
A wee bit down the street towards the boat landing there are a few barbecue stands.
You see lots of interesting stuff there, the most popular being pork, buffalo and chicken.
Also on offer were pigeon, some sausages (pork and buffalo) and some awesome pork belly and pork ribs.
These were grilled over charcoal – so really rich, delicious smoky flavour and a great smell as you walk past.
here we have some duck skewers – with a little bit of duck meat but a whole head split in half.
I don't know if someones asked 'could they split the bill' – but it looked that way.
Here we have some grilled river fish – very tasty also, and some grilled liver and a quail.
Being offally shy, I avoided the liver.
And what are these critters below?
Well, you've already met Miss Piggy and Daisy Duck. So here's Kermit the Frog and his twin brother.
jokes aside, these large meaty frogs are exceptional.
Grilled with the skin on they are ideal for curries and braises. Just 'as is' they can be picked apart and eaten – the flesh being firm and white, quite like chicken in texture with a moister feel and a great taste.
And here they are face first.
I'm thinking something like a Goi Cuon Vietnamese rice paper wrap, or a tasty frog salad with mint, fried shallots, pomelo and fried lemongrass.
And finally some skewers (dry) and some various bits of pork.
Ears, chops, belly, intestines, sausages and leg meat were all on offer, as well as the jowl (cheek) which I snaffled up.
Excellent sliced and eaten hot with a lime chilli dipping sauce.
Just LOVE the Sales Pitch on this guy's sign.
No need for "Lovely Jubbly" and "G'Day – Mate", You had me at "My wife is a very good cook"
I'd love to go in and order "a good conversation" and see how things progress.
That's the culinary side of Pak Beng this time around.
Bye for now, and I bestow a Laotian Indian blessing upon you: Have a great day, and may you only ever be served the softest Naan.