Laos Profile

T he atmosphere at Pho Ketkeo seems a bit unfinished, but the flavors are developed. 

“Everything here is sweet, sour and spicy,” says manager Sam Kingkitpisack, who’s also the chef’s niece. New Haven’s only Laotian eatery, the restaurant, which opened last year on Temple Street north of George but often gets missed beneath the concrete overhang of the Temple parking garage, serves Thai food as well.

But Pho Ketkeo prides itself on the Laotian side of the menu, especially the pho, which the website calls its “star dish.” A newcomer to Laotian cuisine, I let Kingkitpisack and her aunt direct my menu for the afternoon, starting with a deep bowl of that pho. The B4 ($11.95 for a large), featuring meatballs, sliced steak and tripe in a bone broth, was aromatic and subtle. The broth was more complex than the pho I’ve had before—umami, sweet and earthy all at once, while still maintaining a lightness and clarity.

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Of the three meats in the broth, the meatballs were the weakest—rubbery and almost tasteless. The shaved beef, however, was tender and toothsome. The tripe, which Kingkitpisack laughingly admitted she didn’t know much about, other than the fact that it’s “white and chewy,” was strangely beautiful, with a sea-life intricacy. It was indeed chewy, and tasted subtly of marrow. All this meat swimming in bone broth was brightened by the addition of fresh lime juice, basil, sliced jalapeño and bean sprouts, served on the side to accommodate different tastes.

Next, I tried the Yum Talay, or Seafood Salad ($14.95), which, in contrast to the limited visual palette of the pho, was bursting with color. Julienned carrots, red onion and tri-colored bell peppers, along with sprigs of cilantro and vibrant mint leaves, were tossed in sweet and sour chili sauce, lime juice and fish sauce.

On the menu, this salad is marked by a single red pepper—spicy, but less so than the two-pepper dishes. Don’t be fooled: It was very, very spicy. The heat was cut, however, by the beautifully poached seafood. Discs of tender, sweet scallops, spirals of bright shrimp and curlicues of puckered squid tentacles were all tasty and light. Fresh and colorful, and both cool and hot, the salad was an ideal springtime dish.

The meal finished with a classic: Mango and Sticky Rice ($5.95). A staple of Laotian cuisine, sticky rice appears at nearly every traditional meal and is often used as an edible utensil. Not just for dessert, it figures into main courses including Kingkitpisack’s favorite: Laotian Sausage ($9.95 lunch, $13.95 dinner), homemade and flavored with onions, garlic, dill and lemongrass—and meriting two peppers on the spice meter.

The sticky rice in my dessert was shaped into an appealing loaf that brimmed with the sweetly rich taste of coconut milk. It was slightly warm, unexpectedly salty and topped with thick slices of a champagne mango so ripe they melted in my mouth.

Each dish was surprising in some way. The play and balance of flavors and the heavy use of sour and umami, underrepresented in the foods most North Americans seem to eat, may well be unique within New Haven’s food scene.

So if you’re looking for something beyond the usual, try looking below that parking garage overhang, on Temple Street just above George.

Pho Ketkeo
21 Temple St, New Haven
Mon-Fri 11am-3pm & 5-10pm, Sat-Sun 11am-10pm
(203) 745-5480

Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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