As New York’s first Laotian restaurant, Khe-Yo brims with trailblazer pride. The restaurant comes from Marc Forgione and his longtime right-hand man Soulayphet Schwader, a Laos native who delivers the cuisine of his homeland with upmarket style.
Peer around to find a downtown crowd embracing the invitation to renounce silverware. Fingers grab at gnarled strips of moist sesame beef jerky, with a deep meaty twang. Hands cup lettuce leaves for chunks of whole grilled black bass in one dish, or fragments of fried coconut rice balls in another.
After devouring a bowl of earthy chili prawns, use thick triangles of ginger-scallion Texas toast, empty shrimp heads or whatever means necessary to lap up the heady, butter-pumped red curry. Or chase salty, soy-braised Berkshire pork belly with gently sweet summer-gourd broth.
“Bang bang” sauce—the striking house condiment of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and ample Thai chili—takes up permanent residence on the table, alongside a basket of sticky rice, which you pinch off in balls with your fingers. Enough dunks of rice in the fiery elixir will make a cold Beerlao nonnegotiable.
Not all finger-licking is warranted, however, as with the too chewy lemongrass-rubbed ribs. And some other dishes offer less of a thrill. Soft eggplant muddies raw Long Island fluke, while tender slivers of Jurgielewicz duck get buried in a humdrum garden of greens. Dessert—not big in Laos, you’re told—offers two choices: creamy coconut rice pudding that you could make at home, or root-infused cognac that tastes like fruity Hennessy.
That moonshine may be a skip, but Khe-yo’s brand of nouveau Laotian food turns out to be the thing New York was missing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Meal highlights: Crunchy coconut rice, beef jerky, whole bass, chili prawns, unlimited sticky rice with “bang bang” sauce
Vibe: A dark and raucous room perfect for getting your hands a little dirty; good for a lively date, a nightmare for quiet conversation
Cocktail chatter: Chef Schwader spent a year of his childhood living in a refugee camp with his family, before settling in Wichita, KS.
Soundcheck: The sauce isn’t the only thing that goes “bang bang.”
By Daniel S. Meyer