Restaurant Review: Lao Laan-Xang

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

When S and I first started dating, we went out to eat fairly often, once a week or more. As a naturally frugal person (I spent my first six months or so in Madison making only the smallest of purchases), this began to stress me out a bit, so we’ve cut back on our meals out. We enjoy cooking together, and it’s fun to pick recipes and make them throughout the week. But every couple weeks, I definitely do enjoy a Saturday lunch downtown.

Yesterday we joined another couple for lunch at Lao Laan-Xang, self-described as “Madison’s first authentic Laotian restaurant.” S and I ate here months ago, and I was pleased to discover a vegetarian section of the menu with the following header: “Please inform us if you are vegan.” Don’t mind if I do! The first time we ate at LLX, we both had the Khua Curry, a vegetable and tofu curry with a peanut sauce. It was tasty, but nothing amazing. Yesterday, S had fried rice while I tried the Spicy Tofu Peanut Curry (the name on the online menu is slightly different than the paper menu we saw).

Tofu and broccoli in a peanut sauce sits atop a bed of white rice.

Not-so-peanutty tofu.

Don’t worry, that wasn’t my entire portion – our server delivered a giant steaming bowl of curry, and I started with a small serving. I loved that the curry was bursting with broccoli, and not the pitiful, overcooked, limp broccoli you often find in such dishes. Instead it was vibrantly green and crisp. The tofu was equally well cooked, but unfortunately the sauce itself was a bit lackluster – it really didn’t have much of a peanut taste at all, and I think it was a little heavy on the coconut milk. Some curry sauces turn me off a bit when they have a sort of buttery sweetness to them, a taste that gets into my nostrils and makes me feel vaguely ill. This one toed the line with that sensation, but ultimately it was okay. Just okay, though – again, nothing amazing. But S said his fried rice was really good, and our dining partners enjoyed their dishes, so maybe I just chose unwisely.

If you’re in Madison and want something a little different, Lao Laan-Xang is definitely worth trying. I’ve only eaten at the Atwood Ave location, but there’s one on Willy Street as well. The Atwood location is colorful and cozy, and it’s right by Monty’s Blue Plate Diner, another veg-friendly establishment. In fact, we’d originally been planning to go to Monty’s yesterday but ended up walking across the street to LLX when Monty’s had a 30-minute wait. LLX had just a few patrons, so we didn’t have to wait at all. I’m sure we’ll be back, and maybe I’ll discover something more than okay on my third visit!

Have you ever had Laotian food? Do you dine out often?

Restaurant Review(ish): The Great Dane

I’m playing hostess to my BFF at the moment, so I’m going to keep this short. I just have to share with y’all a delicious discovery I made tonight: the Inner Warmth Peanut Stew at the Great Dane in Madison. The Dane is a well-established local pub and eatery, serving local beer and all sorts of food, including quite a few vegan-friendly options. I’ve enjoyed falafel and a burrito on past [separate!] visits to one of its three locations, but this was my first experience with this stew. Now I’m kicking myself for not trying it sooner!

I don’t have a photo, but here’s the description from the menu: A stew of butternut squash, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, hot peppers and cilantro in a zesty peanut sauce. Served over rice with beer bread.

A quick inquiry revealed the rice isn’t vegan (?!?), but they substituted Israeli cous cous, which I think I preferred. I also passed the beer bread on to my friends, but I didn’t need it – the portion size was perfect, and I was utterly satiated after my meal. It’s truly a warming and filling dish that avoids seeming too heavy. In other words, near perfection! I think I detected some cauliflower in my stew, and heaven knows I love anything with cauliflower. :)

So! If you’re ever at the Dane, definitely give this stew a try!

A Match Made in Heaven, Just Like Milk and Honey (You make the gobi, he’ll make the money!)

This past Sunday afternoon, I received a text message that both pleased and worried me. A friend from work said she was making curry for dinner and wanted to know if my roommate and I would join her, her boyfriend, another work friend, and the latter friend’s son. As pleased as I was to receive a dinner invitation, I was also a little apprehensive. My friend knows I’m vegan, but even so, visions of chicken-laden curries and awkwardness swam through my mind. After a mild bit of panic, I texted her back to accept the offer and to ask if I should bring a vegan option (followed by a smily face, of course). Not five seconds later, my cell phone rang. My friend was calling to tell me that she was making two coconut milk-based curries, one with chicken and one with mushrooms and other veggies.

“No vegan option necessary,” she reassured me.

The cockles of my heart, they were warmed. Full of gratitude and happiness, I knew I couldn’t arrive at the dinner party empty-handed. I had to bring something, an edible expression of my gratefulness for my friend’s considerate and kind behavior. I briefly considered making some sort of Indian-inspired dip and bringing that with some veggies, but I quickly abandoned that possibility in favor of the most timeless, impress-the-omnis, food item in existence. Obviously, I’m talking about vegan cupcakes.

An innocent and unassuming cuppiecake, say you?

Not just any cupcakes, though. This batch packed a secret punch, something invisible to the eye. That little cupper up there isn’t just your average chocolate-coconut delicacy. Nope, lurking inside this sweet fellow is a surprising blend of flavors.

Lurking in the chocolaty shadows - garam masala!

Yes ma’am, I found a recipe for Garam Masala Chocolate Coconut Cupcakes that helped me create some slammin’ cupcakes. They were perfectly moist, and the garam masala spices added a touch of flavor complexity that complemented the chocolate and coconut surprisingly well. They were the perfect opportunity to showcase the fantastic garam masala I picked up at Penzey’s (which, by the way, is an AMAZING store!). This garam masala features coriander, black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, charnushka, caraway, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg, a truly killer combination.

And my friends agreed. The cupcakes were a big hit at the dinner party, the perfect follow-up to the yummy curry my friend made for us. Great success!

Truly, though, I feel so lucky. I’ve met some really wonderful people since moving to Madison. My roommate spontaneously decided to make me a vegan birthday cake when I turned 23 a few weeks ago; she whipped up a Cookies ‘n’ Cream cake that was decadent beyond belief. And my work friends are quite inquisitive about my veganism, in the best way possible. The friend who made the curry is interested in sustainable agriculture and local foods, so we relate well on that level. All in all, things are good here. Who would’ve guessed my move to America’s Dairyland would’ve only made me feel more comfortable and happy in my newish vegan skin?! Life – it never fails to surprise me. :)

(P.S. I swear the title of this post is not completely random and misogynistic. Anybody get the reference?)

Things I Learned in Madison + a Very Green Smoothie

So you know how I’ve been blabbing about going to Madison to apartment hunt? Well, I went, I met my new roommate, we looked at lots of apartments, and we eventually filled out an application. Exciting! It was a great weekend which provided me with fodder for a list of Things I Learned in Madison:

1. Afghan food is really yummy.
2. Afghan food is really yummy except also kind of evil when it hides egg yolks in a salad dressing.
3. The best way to convince hardcore omnis that being vegan isn’t so difficult might very well be to assent to lunch at McDonald’s, then eat a surprisingly filling salad and prove that finding vegan food is not actually all that difficult.
4. Being in a McDonald’s after not entering a fast food joint for years is sort of depressing.
5. I am an inveterate people-pleaser.

Number five was the sort of revelation that shouldn’t have been revelatory. The apartment we chose isn’t in downtown Madison; it’s much more on the outskirts of the city, practically in farmland. This is what my roommate wanted, and although I’d have preferred something smaller and more centrally located, I’d rather have her be happy and content with a larger apartment than make a fuss and have her be dissatisfied later. I don’t know if that’s a good quality or if it has something to do with my history of low self-esteem and desire to please everybody without becoming a hassle, but there it is. At least the place we chose is right on the bus line, so my carless self will have easy access to downtown. Hooray for that.

Anyway, enough pseudo-introspection – onto the food! I tried Vega Whole Food Smoothie Infusion for the first time today, since there was a packet included in the drink mix giveaway I won a few weeks ago. I decided to just add it to my normal Green Monster, which resulted in an Extra Green Green Monster. Heh.

Mmm, green.

You may notice that my smoothie seems rather diminutive. This is because we only had half a banana left, so I had to scale down my Green Monster. I used less kale and soy milk than usual, but I still dumped in the entire Vega packet. This is probably why my smoothie seemed a little grainy and powdery; I’m sure if I’d had more liquid, it would’ve worked out better. But the taste didn’t disgust me and I had no problem finishing it, so that’s good, right? I’d love to try Vega with an all-fruit smoothie – maybe next time! All in all, I approve. :)

I wanted to say that I needed this infusion of greenery to make up for unhealthy eating while in Madison this weekend, but then I realized that it wasn’t actually true! I ate pretty healthily in Madison, in part because I always travel with a stash of raw food and/or granola bars. Something like a Raw Revolution bar makes a great hotel breakfast and fills me up for a few hours. I also got to experience a small taste of Madison’s wonderful restaurants when I had dinner at an Afghan place and had a tasty spinach, potato, and carrot stew. I can’t wait to try more restaurants when I move out there for good IN TWO WEEKS.