I first heard about Sao Lao on N. Shepherd, just a little bit north of the B&W Meat Market in early 2022 through the Houston Heights Foodies food group on Facebook (I'm a member).
The photos of the dishes looked fantastic, and, in February, I had my first opportunity to check it out. Wow.
A small menu, and that is a good thing. A lot of attention to each dish. The chef told me that she started with some family recipes for the Boat Soup, but then kept working and working on it until she was satisfied. A lot of spices, prepared in a way that none overwhelmed the others. Just a fantastic broth with rice noodles pork meatballs and tender ribeye steak slices. A hyper-intense slightly sweet broth of chilis, lime, celery, Thai chard, galangal root, five spice, medium rare ribeye pieces, pork rinds [Yep, from the bag. Delicious] and house-made (I believe) noodles underneath ($15.00). Cannot emphasize enough the perfectly rare, perfectly tender ribeye pieces.
To begin, order the jerky, which comes with sticky rice and a sauce and lettuce and have them show you the way to eat it.
Next, go for, well, based on our experience, just about anything on the menu is going to be fantastic. But we had the boat soup, and the crunchy crispy Laotian rice. And we had dumplings.
I have a gut feeling that this place is going to become incredibly popular so go before the crowds discover it.
John Nechman writes: “ Our friend, foodie and expert on all things fried chicken and Mexican, Jay P. Francis, was sweet enough to pick up a jar for me of something I've been trying to hunt down for a long time--mayhaw jelly. I've had a crazy work schedule but wanted to meet up for lunch (and to get my jelly!), and to be able to include Richi, who was anxious to see Jay, we needed a place between the school where he teaches in the North End and the Galleria, where he had some serious shopping to do. We settled on Sao-Lao Thai Café (5013 N. Shepherd), a place Jay highly recommended.
Though humble in size and appearance, Sao Lao more than makes up for it in flavor. I went full-on Lao, ordering the house-made Lao beef jerky with a traditional spicy tomato sauce and sticky rice. It put to shame anything I've bought at Bucee's.
As my imagined/imaginary Laotian grandmother would likely tell me--WASH YOUR HANDS! Little pouches of sticky rice come with just about everything--the idea is to pinch off a portion, roll it into a ball, and dunk it into the omnipresent sauces while eating whatever they come with. Richi ordered what was described on the menu as sliced filet ignon but which was actually a Laotion specialty that appeared to be a beef tartare made with ground tripe and served with lettuce leaves to make "tacos," along more of that sticky rice. He scarfed down every bit of it.
I had the Nam Khao, which looked like a large bowl of paella adorned with lettuce leaves. The rice was crispy fried and cooked with a red curry sauce, dessicated coconut, cilantro, green onions, spices, peanuts, and ground fermented pork. It is served cold, but I enjoyed its unique and complex flavors. Jay spoke glowingly of the beef boat noodle soup, which looked like a Louisiana gumbo rich with roux. It must be great--Jay ordered it on his first visit as well.
We ended the meal with a mango sticky rice and thanked the sweet server at the register who we all thought was Lao but is actually El Salvadoran. Like us, she appears to really love the food at this delightful little spot. “