A Laotian James Beard Finalist In OKC
Updated: Apr 15
by Andrew Chalk
The Moll and I decided to visit Oklahoma City for a long weekend. I wanted some insight into interesting places to eat. That ruled out Yelp reviews (non credible) and Trip Advisor (estimates are that a third of the reviews there are fake). Youtube videos were mainly pathetic, superficial, amateurish and didn’t declare when meals were comped. I asked my social media friends, who had proven a reliable and ruthlessly honest guide for other cities such as New Orleans and Charleston. I got just one suggestion. I appealed for suggestions in a Facebook chefs group. Nothing.
It seemed that I had joined the ranks of those who had hit a dry hole in OKC.
Then, the week before our trip, the James Beard awards released their lists of finalists. In the “Best Chef, Southwest no fewer than two of the five finalists were from OKC. Bingo!
JAMES BEARD AWARDS FINALISTS 2023
Best Chef: Southwest (AZ, NM, NV, OK)
· Oscar Amador, Anima by EDO, Las Vegas, NV
· Kaoru Azeuchi, KAISEKI YUZU, Las Vegas, NV
· Andrew Black, Grey Sweater, Oklahoma City, OK
· Jeff Chanchaleune, Ma Der Lao Kitchen, Oklahoma City, OK
· Justin Pioche, Pioche Food Group, Upper Fruitland (Doolkai), Navajo Nation, NM
That result chose dinner for us on two nights.
MA DER LAO KITCHEN: BUSY, BUZZING, AND DELICIOUS
Anticipating a rush the week after the James Beard awards, we diverted from heading straight to our hotel from the airport to going to Ma Der Laotion Kitchen (translated: “Come Thru!”) first. It proved to be a wise decision. No reservations is the policy and by six thirty there was a line outside. All we could find earlier was space at the counter in front of the kitchen. I would have preferred the patio on the balmy 70o evening but the bar gave us bidirectional people-watching. Either back to the crowded, noisy, and animated dining tables, or forward to the stoves and chefs working their prep.
The menu at Ma Der reflects the tastes and experience of owner and founder Jeff Chanchaleune. It starts from what his mother and grandmother cooked. “Our goal is to educate our diners and shine a little more light on Lao culture and cuisine” he says on the web site. While I don’t claim the experience to judge its authenticity (having not yet visited Laos) the menu’s chest-puffing pride in its ‘Laotianess’ certainly rang of credibility. I would have asked Jeff, but he was running an event the night we visited.
The modus operandi at Ma Der is shared plates from a one-page menu that, in a giant finger to Escoffier, makes order irrelevant. We ordered one of everything that we tried and, on the back of a “grueling 40-minute in-air flight” from Dallas, had the appetite to finish.
Following advice from our enthusiastic waiter we started with Crispy Rice Salad (Nam Khao), the restaurant’s most popular dish. The picture clearly shows the fried rice but almost obscures the seasoned crispy rice that contributes so much to the dish’s character. Balls of cooked rice are deep-fried until crisp and then crushed into pieces the size of rice krispies that are mixed in with fried rice. Add peanuts ground almost to dust, and mint, cilantro, and scallions for an aromatic and tasty vegetable dimension, pork sausage for earthiness, and you have a sophisticated and delicious mix to be stuffed into lettuce leaves and eaten by hand. It is a big helping (at a small - $14 - price) that would be a fine main course for many. Those ingredients create a flavor stack that totally engaged me. Squashed between the counter and the crowd, chowing down on an empty stomach, the weekend had definitely begun.
I needed a beverage to supplement water. The most interesting thing on the short drinks list was Beer Lao ($7). My first glass of Lao beer and, in common with a lot of Asian beers, a light lager-style that was inoffensive and copacetic with food.
Next, the Friday special, a Green Curry Catfish ($18), changed me from a catfish hater (I have seen their eating habits) to, if not a catfish lover, someone who would order this recipe again. The steamed fish filets were immersed in aromatics and summarily buried in spicy cilantro and sprinkled with deep-fried onion pieces for a crispy texture. On a style note, Jeff Chanchaleune uses the diligent combination of crispy and chewy textures a lot to add ongoing oral interest to his dishes.
Lao Sausage (Sai Oua) $8 went head-to-head with the same dish at Dallas’ Sakhuu (and at the same price). If Ma Der is the anointed champ, based on James Beard’s imprimatur, then congrats to Sakhuu, yours is as good. Both are rich pork. Ma Der’s more loosely stuffed than Sakhuu’s. Both are imbued with enough spice to keep the eating interesting.
Spicy Mushroom Stew (Aw Het) $12 was more of a soup, featuring a variety of mushrooms, Thai eggplant, herbs, lots of ginger, and pepper in a flavorsome broth. It would knock you to consciousness as the first dish at breakfast and perhaps should be first on the agenda in the evening.
Do order a plate of the à la carte Chile Dips (Jaew). One red and one green ($2 for each). Made in house and pairable with everything.
We skipped dessert on full stomachs and felt like we had made a discovery. Ma Der Lao Kitchen is very good at crafting delicious food, making guests welcome, and making them return. Staff explained that they are as busy every Friday and that the James Beard finalist nomination has had only a small effect thus far. I know that Ma Der is on my rotation on any future trips to Oklahoma City.
DECLARATION OF INTEREST
All restaurant reviews on this blog are conducted blind and all bills paid for by me unless otherwise noted as a media event. We subscribe to the FTC Endorsement Guides for Bloggers. Readers should not trust any writer who does not do so, or does not declare their interest - they are using you to get free food or payment. In particular, almost all so-called ‘influencers’ are whores.
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