Thursday, March 1, 2012

Vientiane Market (Portland, ME)

Vientiane Market is a small Asian market located at the corner of Noyes Ave and St. John St in Portland, ME; if you don't know what you're looking for, you will drive right past it and never think twice.  Hidden in this small, nondescript building is a tiny kitchen that puts out some truly incredible Thai food (Thai, in this case, being the Thai people, rather than Thailand; as the name implies, the owners of this market are from Laos) in a friendly, comforting environment at exceptionally reasonable prices.

The main event at this restaurant, like many Thai joints, is the Pad Thai.  This is not your standard Pad Thai, however; I would dare say that many people who are used to more Americanized versions would not care for Vientiane's offering.  They make their Pad Thai with rather less sweetness than you will find in many places, and with more of a gravy like sauce than I have seen elsewhere.  However, I have been assured this is the authentic way to serve a dish that is among the "national dishes" of the Thai people.  When you order, be sure to specify the amount of heat you'd like by the number of "stars."  No stars, no heat; five stars, you'll be crying like a baby if you weren't born with a habanero in your mouth.  Typically I go with one star, which is spicy but not overwhelming in any way, but on occasion I'll ramp it up to three or three and a half stars if I really want some burn (or if I've got a cold and lack a good nasal decongestant).

I also must recommend the fresh spring rolls, which really are just that; if you sit in the right place, you can see your spring roll being made.  This is a fine vegetarian option, consisting of nothing more or less than any other spring roll you'll find elsewhere, but for some reason, it just tastes better.  Served with a deliciously sweet sauce that I believe must be hoisin based, you won't regret this light, refreshing snack.

Also worth eating are the Tom Ka Gai, the slightly sweet coconut milk based chicken soup, which was a welcome addition to many of the colder, wet evenings I spent working in Maine in the summer of 2008 (a year that had exactly one day without rain from June through August).  Like the spring rolls, I can't pinpoint anything in particular that makes this better than any other I've had, but it just is; I suspect freshness of ingredients has something to do with it.

Lastly, the curries are fantastic here, though with the exception of the Massaman curry, I've had just as good elsewhere.  The Massaman has just the right hint of spice, sweetness from the small chunks of pineapple, and overall balance of flavors that I have not experienced at any other Thai restaurant.

To me, this is an essential stop for any visitor to Portland, and a recurring trip for residents is encouraged; I probably ate here 3 times a week during the summer of 2008, partially due to a lack of time to make my own food due to a bizarre work/sleep schedule, and partially because I was fed delicious food by some of the friendliest people I've ever met, who always had a kind word for me and their other regular customers.


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