The Mein Man: Something’s Fishy about the Kao Boon Bha at Savatdee

Dish: Khao Boon Bha
Place: Savatdee, University District
Price: $10.00

In the bowl and on the plate: From the menu: “Traditional Lao fish soup. Slow cooked catfish in coconut milk, galangal, lemon grass and kaffir leaves. Served with noodles and topped with shredded carrots, cabbage and bean sprouts.” What the description doesn’t tell you is that while the soup is naturally in a bowl, the noodles and veggies come on a separate plate, along with some Thai basil and mint.

Supporting cast/What to do: Add the noodles to the coconut-based broth, along with the vegetables and the herbs as desired.

Noodling around: It’s nice to see Lao food on the north side of Seattle, as the south side has it at Viengthong (and had it at Thai Palms in the past). As at Viengthong, the Lao menu will likely introduce you to more unusual dishes than the larger Thai menu.

Kao Boon Bha was new to me. I was surprised to see the dish arrive in two parts. The noodles are rice vermicelli, cooked soft and seemingly cut short in length. As a fan of the interactivity of Asian noodle bowls, I actually enjoy playing with the ingredients in my meal, experimenting with flavors, even though these noodles are low on my list of favorites due to their blandness and texture.

The soup is interesting, almost orange in color. The coconut flavor is pervasive, though the southeast Asian flavors are ever-present. Not as present as I hoped, though, was the fish. Instead of chunks of catfish, there were flakes of fish scattered throughout the bowl, with the result far from oceanic flavor. (Or should I say freshwater flavor?) While I suppose that kao boon bha is technically a fish soup, don’t expect anything as alive as bouillabaisse, for example.

If you want more: This may not be elaborate in preparation, but I ordered lychee on ice ($3), as I was in the mood for something light and cool. Clearly the kitchen simply emptied a can of lychees, syrup and all, onto a bowl of ice. You can do this at home. I will, as it’s an easy and refreshing end to a meal.

For something more substantial, try the lab mou sai keungnai ($11). This meat salad consists of charbroiled pork tossed in a mixture of liver, tripe and pork rinds. It’s seasoned with galangal, kaffir leaves, and toasted rice, and served with cabbage. The good parts (liver, tripe, and pork rinds) are cut very small, so they’re almost indiscernible, though they do lend texture to the dish. You might also consider the chicken version (lab gai sai keungnai) which contains gizzards and hearts.

Be aware/beware: Savatdee frequently runs Groupon specials, but requires you to make a reservation when cashing in the coupon. The dining room is small and the servers (at least the night I ate there recently) are young and a bit shy. As always, I ordered my food to be extra spicy (5 on a 1 to 4 scale), but it was way too weak. “Maybe next time,” the server said, softly.

First published in Seattle Weekly’s Voracious on March 14, 2013.

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