Review: Han Lao

first impression | This is a locally owned, unique Asian spot set amid the commotion of Hanley Road’s big box stores and chain restaurants. The food is primarily Laotian dishes, which have both similarities and differences when compared to other Asian fare around town. Inside, the place is casual, but on the nicer side, with booths and long communal tables. There is a full bar with specialty drinks, wine and beer. A word of caution about the food: It is much spicier than typical Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine we’re used to.

must try
» beef jerky: $6.95; A plateful of sticky, crispy flank steak strips covered in sesame seeds and flavored with kochujang (Korean chili paste) is just the right balance of sweet and spicy. The big appeal comes from the meaty texture.

» sticky ribs: $9; These could have been an entire meal. The four large bones had a sticky sauce on top that provided the promised crustiness, and while they had a little bit of fat, they were overall surprisingly lean and pungent with a sugar coating and a hint of five-spice powder.

» shrimp fried rice: $11.95; This was probably my favorite dish. Every grain was coated with the lightest layer of oil, and there was plenty of egg. The pickled greens on top were a unique touch; they tempered the oil and added a pop of vinegar.

» tom yum goong (hot and sour soup): $5.95: Fiery red with chile peppers, the dish is a good example of how this cuisine draws you in with its exotic flavors but also shocks you with its heat. It in no way resembles its Chinese counterpart. The soup is a mouth-puckering recipe thanks to lime and bitter cilantro, and the slivered red onion, shrimp and button mushrooms barely cut the heat.

» thum muk huong: $6.95; Another spicy dish, this one cold, the green papaya salad has shredded cabbage, fruit and vegetables that you stuff into iceberg lettuce for a tasty wrap.

» shrimp red curry: $10.95; The milder dish leans more toward Thai cuisine with coconut milk, bamboo shoots and baby corn. Spoon the creamy curry over rice, and the kick is barely noticeable.

» khao piak sen: $8.95;Chicken broth is teeming with house-made rice noodles and shredded white-meat chicken. The noodles were too thick and dominating for my taste. Additionally, the defining flavor was ‘fried garlic,’ which yields a burnt and bitter element—an acquired taste.

wash it down
For a place this casual, the bar menu is impressive. My Lychee Buddha ($9) was well conceived, well executed and not nearly as sweet as it sounds. Cognac and peach liqueur were mixed with lychee juice for an exotic cocktail that tasted terrific. In addition to cocktails, you can opt for Sapporo, Ichiban, Singha and other brews that go well with this cuisine. Plus, there’s a full range of bubble teas.

Adventurous diners will love the variety of flavors and ingredients here. It’s like an exploratorium for foodies. Plus, prices are reasonable and service is efficient. For those with more sedate dining habits, just be sure to inquire about the dishes and order them mild.

1250 Strassner Drive | 314.932.135

Pictured at top: Khao Poon; red curry and coconut pork broth with vermicelli noodles, ground pork, bamboo, bean sprouts, fresh herbs, red onions and cabbage
Photo: Bill Barrett