Earl Daniel could charm the growl out of a Rottweiler. He could charm the tar off a highway. Why, in a three-way charm contest against Hugh Grant and George Hamilton, I know who I'd wager on. And his wife, Kham, makes a mean larb.
Two friends brought me to Lao-Thai Kitchen a few weeks after they strolled down Solano Avenue and stopped to look through the windows of the tiny storefront. They peered into a room that could have been one of the back rooms from the King and I set, with walls clad floor to ceiling in Thai-palace carved woods and ornate gilt starbursts ringing 1960s-era chandeliers. Set into the walls were lit boxes showcasing silver chopsticks and teapots, and the cash-register station was framed like a small beach hut.
Then they spotted, taped to the window, the soul-food menu. Ribs: $8.95. Hot links: $8.95. Sides: black-eyed peas, greens, cornbread, and sweet potatoes.
According to Earl, he and the missus took over the former Sabuy Sabuy space 21 months ago as a retirement project. A seven-day-a-week one. "My wife wanted something to do," he says, "because she wasn't going to look at me 24 hours a day. Of course, I fought like dragging a cat over a carpet."
Neither of them went into the biz completely blind -- Earl used to run a barbecue place in Bay Point and Kham had cooked for years. The Daniels named their restaurant "Kitchen," Earl adds, because they didn't want it to be a pinkies-up kind of joint, but a place where people could feel like they were a guest in someone's dining room. After year one, Earl walked up and down Solano and decided Albany needed a soul-food restaurant, too, so he taught Kham his family recipes and they posted the additional menu on the front.
Culinary fusion aside, Lao-Thai Kitchen is basically a neighborhood Thai restaurant. They do a decent takeout business, and on a weekend night the room fills up about halfway, mostly folks who have walked from home. Between Thep-Naaree, Sweet Basil, Ruen Pair, Bua Luang, Sea Mi, the newly arrived Krung Thep, and a few others whose names I've forgotten, the competition between the neighborhood's Thai restaurants is fierce. I'm surprised the restaurateurs haven't started cold-calling locals or walking door-to-door with free samples.
Lao-Thai Kitchen's Thai food matches but doesn't exceed the standards set by its competitors. But how can you not love a restaurant that serves collard greens and pad kee mao? Where the owner hangs out tableside swapping stories, sharing NASCAR trivia, and triple-checking to make sure the kitchen got the spicing right?
In fact, Earl is a little wary of his wife's predilection for chiles. "They'll grind up five habaneros and put 'em in there," he told our table one night after we requested our food spicy. "You don't want Lao spicy." On another night, right before we ordered, an older couple across the room mentioned to Earl that they found their som tum a little too hot. Earl wasn't going to take chances with us. "I'm going to tell my wife just a little spicy," he insisted when we ordered the same dish, even as I protested that I didn't want it mild, either. Sure enough, it took four bites to feel some of that old tingle coming on, and the aroma and kick of more chiles would have fleshed out the pungent fish sauce and lime dressing on the shredded green papaya.
The som tum is one of the dishes that specifically mentions Kham's Laotian heritage. Another salad common throughout northern Thailand and Laos is larb, ground meat (pork, chicken, beef, duck) tossed with onions, mint, and toasted rice powder. On Earl's recommendation we tried the beef, and Kham didn't stint with the lime and chiles here, setting off most of the neurons north of my shoulders. Exactly what I was hoping for.
With the exception of a tom kha soup in which only the natural sweetness of coconut milk softened the double kick of lime juice and aromatics, Kham's Thai food skews farang-friendly sweet. Sometimes, as with an off-menu pumpkin curry, the rich coconut-milk curry is a great counterbalance to the kicky salads. But when you make a meal of the kang dang (red curry) and the pad prik pow talay, scallops, shrimp, and squid stir-fried with vegetables and sweet chile paste, the sugar rush can get a little intense.
That's why every meal I eat there again will revolve around the Lao BBQ pork. When I first nibbled on one of the pounded cutlets, its marinade also seemed sweet. So I dipped a baby spoon into an egg cup of clear brown sauce -- with red chile flakes and ground, toasted mung beans floating on top -- and drizzled a little over the meat. The effect was as thrilling as running with the bulls in Pamplona on a broken leg. Somehow Kham had managed to concentrate a lime tree, a chile bush, and a gallon of fish sauce into a couple of tablespoons. When the meat was gone my friends and I began to measure droplets of the sauce onto our rice and take tiny bites. Wince. Sweat. Swig beer. Sigh. Do it again.
Meals follow a leisurely pace. The food comes when it comes. Dishes get cleared when Earl can get to them. If Earl gets stuck on the phone with take-out calls, Kham darts out of the kitchen to deliver the food she's just cooked. Then, when the pace eases, Earl makes his way around the room pouring water, calling out, "How you doin', young man and young woman?" to couples in their fifties.
Almost every table orders something off the soul-food menu. Earl slow-roasts rather than smokes his ribs -- the fire department would put up too much of a fuss -- but they do come off the bone nicely, and with your order he kindly brings over some paper towels spritzed with water so you can wipe his homemade sauce off your hands. The sides are big mom food, plain and simple. And if you leave your name with the Daniels, they'll give you a call the next time they whip up a batch of chitterlings, gumbo, or fried okra.
Then there's the matter of the mysterious "white-potato" pie, which Earl swears isn't made with sweet potato but I suspect is an Asian variety rather than Idahos spruced up with sugar. Some sweet-potato pies have pumpkin pie envy, their mousselike fillings so pumped up with sugar and spices that you can barely taste the main ingredient. Earl's tastes like sweet potatoes. Spiced, whipped, barely sweetened sweet potatoes, with a crumbly, salty crust and a thin coat of whipped-cream froth. The cream adds just enough sugar so you find yourself chasing after the pie's sweetness, not reeling from it.
Lao-Thai Kitchen may not merit a drive from Walnut Creek, but locals yearning for a side of candied yams with their satay now have a home away from home. I'll wager they always walk out smiling.