Chinatown’s Best Hidden Courtyard Is a Thai-Laotian Gem
Laotian food standouts aren't the only draw at Olay’s Thai-Lao Cuisine.
I went to Olay’s Thai-Lao Cuisine because a friend who’s a total food snob told me it had the best Southeast Asian food he’s had in Hawai‘i. But look who’s calling the proverbial kettle black—I’d known it was there, in a Chinatown spot that opened a year ago. But I’d never bothered going because after years of seeing Olay’s Thai curries, pad thai and spring rolls at farmers markets and food events (remember those?), why would I venture to Hotel Street for more of the same?
Only it’s not. My friend ordered entirely off the Lao side of Olay’s dual menu of about 50 Thai and 20 Laotian dishes. It’s this side that sings—an anthem to the flavors of Olay Somsanith’s native country, featured in the first place she’s not among other Laotians cooking Thai food, and the first place of her own. Somsanith is the tiny woman in the beret you’ll see at her wok in the open kitchen. More than 40 years ago, in the chaos after a Communist government took power in Laos, she strapped her baby on her back and swam across the Mekong River, found her husband in a Thai refugee camp, and with him raised a family on the West Coast and in Hawai‘i.
To my mind, Olay’s Thai with its menu of stuffed chicken wings, Evil Jungle Prince and other modern-day Thai staples was Somsanith’s way of laying low until she could do right by her own food heritage. Olay’s Thai-Lao is like her: It has its secrets, and they’re worth discovering. You could do as most people do, order the favorite dishes you get at every Thai restaurant, but you would be missing an adventure. And you could, as most customers do, come into the Hotel Street storefront, order takeout and wait, socially distanced, in the winding dining room. But then you would be missing the hidden secret just beyond that’s as good as Somsanith’s native cookery: Chinatown’s best courtyard dining.
Here are my top choices from the Lao menu—the four dishes I find myself ordering again and again.
Sai oua (Lao sausage)
My first Lao sausage (this one, $12.95) was the motliest I’d seen, and it turned out to be the best. Cut into chunks, the loosely packed sausages of lightly fermented pork, lemongrass and pork skin exploded in the hot oil, producing crunchy, bouncy delights. The sauce on the side will set your mouth aflame, so be sparing. Every time since, our Lao sausages have come out as intact as the one at the left, which is very good, but I always secretly hope for the explosions.
Kapoon (Lao curry noodle soup)
It’s not pretty, but this is my favorite dish ($13.95). It’s a gentle red coconut curry that anchors the base, richened by the minced pork I always choose (you can get it with beef, chicken, shrimp or tofu); sometimes ribbons of softened pork skin twine through like slick, wide noodles. The takeout version is better: It comes with generous sliced cabbage, bean sprouts and chopped long beans that lift the rich dish with freshness and crunch.
Kua mee lao (Laotian pad thai)
Pad thai here isn’t what you think. The rice noodles are burnished with extra touches like palm sugar, oyster sauce and dark soy. It’s the last that lingers nicely on the finish. I’ve never met a pad thai I’ve liked outside Thailand. I like this one ($10.95 to $13.95 depending on topping), and it turns out it’s not Thai.
Tom khiem (caramelized pork belly)
Pork belly and boiled eggs simmered in a sweet-savory broth of coconut juice and fish sauce ($13.95), this is a more intense version of Vietnam’s thit kho nuoc dua. I’ve had it melty and I’ve had it firmer; either way, it’s worth dipping your spoon into.
For the record, I’ve tried a half-dozen other dishes, several of them staff recommendations. Most were good, if not memorable. And most people like very much the nam khao, or Laotian crispy rice salad with crunches and tangy pork spritzed with lime. If you’re not familiar with funkier Lao flavors, I would avoid the bamboo stew. Reserve early and ask for a courtyard table under roof if it’s raining. Finally, Olay’s is BYOB.