Cheap Eats - Hot Cafe brings a taste of Laos to Atlanta

Southeast Asian grub near the airport

Wednesday October 26, 2011 09:00 am EDT

To say Hot Café is off the beaten path is an understatement. It's just outside the perimeter, due south of the airport. Actually, the closest I had ever been to Hot Café before my first meal there was the runway at Hartsfield-Jackson, which is appropriate since reading Hot Café's menu is like hopping on a tour of Southeast Asia. The sign outside reads "Laos, Thai, Chinese," and the menu hits everything from Vietnamese pho to pad Thai to lo mein to a spin on sukiyaki. What really distinguishes Hot Café, though, is the Lao cuisine, an often invigoratingly spiced cousin of Thai food that's seldom found in the Southeast of the United States.

Chef and owner Tot Sayngavong, a native of Laos, moved to Atlanta in 1980 and has been serving up homestyle Lao food at Hot Café for 17 years now. Her brother Kham mans the front of the house, greeting regulars and newcomers alike with a friendly smile. The crowd here is as diverse as the menu – Cambodian, Laotian, Thai – and also peppered with pilots and air cargo workers from around the world who are in for a short stay near the airport, furthering the impression that this is some strange global pit stop. They all come for the privilege of chowing down on dishes like a serious green papaya salad and crisp, dry fried beef jerky in a neighborhood that can politely be described as "rough around the edges."

After Kham's warm welcome, you'll notice the small market of random snacks near the entrance – pork rinds, crisp house-made taro and plantain chips, or, if you're lucky, stacks of delicately fried flower-shaped sesame seed cookies. A Thai TV station plays in the background, adding a constant stream of foreign sounds that reassures you that Hot Café is not going to be a watered down translation.

The Lao specialties on offer range from the semi-familiar (green papaya salad) to the rarely seen (lard na, a dish of chewy rice noodles in a satisfying meaty gravy). The Lao green papaya salad is assertive and focused – crisp papaya tossed with a bit of tomato and a hot pepper-driven fish sauce. The heat that emanates from those shreds of green papaya is the kind that begs you to keep eating, to lengthen the burn, to keep it coming. And it doesn't suffer at all from the lack of chopped peanuts or dried shrimp typically found in its Thai counterpart; simplicity here is welcome. 

Apart from that papaya salad, the menu sticks mostly to meats and noodles. Hot Café's food is decidedly not for vegetarians. Dry fried beef jerky is a thing of beauty, each piece a thinly cut and twisted tangle of chewy and crisp-around-the-edges beef, coated in a light, sweet glaze with hints of lemongrass and topped with a sprinkle of sesame seeds. What the menu lists as "fried sausage" is a house-made pork link with a firm crunch to the skin, sliced up into thick chunks, redolent yet again of lemongrass and other herbs. The lemongrass presence across the menu is a reassuring reminder of the magic that this ingredient can weave when dealt with deftly.

On to the larger plates, the beef larb is an excellent choice, akin to Thai larb, with finely chopped beef, thin slivers of tripe, and bunches of chopped cilantro and scallions kissed by a light dressing of fish sauce and lime juice. Pick up a crisp lettuce leaf and some basil to wrap it all up, and you're ready to roll. The tripe here adds a pleasant chewiness, a touch of depth, without being off-putting in the least.  The lard na is a dish of thick and chewy rice noodles, almost dumpling-like, drowned in a rich gravy and topped with Chinese broccoli and whatever meat you choose. This is simple comfort food – the warm embrace between the noodles and the sauce, the slightly bitter bite of the broccoli – and a great counterpoint to the more heavily spiced items on the menu. Speaking of which, no Lao meal is complete without a small steamed basket of sticky rice, more firm than might be found in Thai restaurants, ready to be balled up by hand and paired with just about anything else on the menu.

My trips beyond the airport to Hot Café have all been worth the ride. You can stick with the familiar – the fried rice, the pho, the lo mein – and, chances are, they'll be very good. But, like most trips, you'll be rewarded if you go a bit beyond the familiar. Hot Café gives you that side street into the unfamiliar. You just have to be willing to take the trip.

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