Madame Nom’s

In the famous temple town of Luang Prabang in northern Laos there is a simple restaurant that serves a soup so delicious it has the power to transcend into something sublime.  Ask a local where to get a great lunch and they will invariably tell you to go to Madam Nom’s, a formica tabled joint just out of the main tourist drag on a street called Phou Vao.  The speciality of the house is pho (foe).  Not the kind of pho (fur) you get in the side streets of Hanoi or Saigon, but a murky bowl of symphonic joy filled with glistening rice noodles and a stack of buffalo meat in a distinctly Lao style.

Madame Nom herself can be found in the kitchen that greets you before you step through the front door.  She proudly commands a small brigade of family members in the creation of the star attraction.  Occupying the burner, she is every inch the matriarch of the operation.  Although she speaks  little English, she smilingly welcomes you and humbly takes your compliments when you leave.

Crossing the threshold, you are immediately seated and, as is the norm in these one dish places, you are not handed a menu.  A pretty Lao girl just knowingly gestures toward what everybody else is eating and, if you know what’s good for you, you should simply agree.  Here, nobody speaks English, but there is a higher language at work, one we can all understand.

Within minutes a bowl of piping hot, chewy rice noodles is in front of you.  The buffalo broth has been stewing all day and its aroma is heady and intoxicating.  The wafer thin slices of buffalo are put in raw and the boiling soup cooks it in front of your eyes.    The plate that complements your bowl has mint, lime, lettuce, chili sauce and bean sprouts.  Wise heads would recommend that you add all of these to your pho.  The oily chili sauce is not only devilish in its piquancy, but also palate arousingly delicious.  If the spice from the sauce is not enough, there are also two bowls of wicked looking chilies that serious chili-heads will appreciate.  These are to be eaten on the side, like the Thais and Mexicans do.   They are fruity and sweet as well as being spicy.  If you do bite off more than you can chew, then you can cool your taste buds with a glass of sweet, rich iced milk tea.

When you eat at  Madame Nom’s, you will be surrounded by a sea of Lao faces all in various stages of the joyous rapture caused by this simple, yet complex flavored bowl of noodles in broth.  Madame Nom has been serving her concoction for years and she knows better than most, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  There are other noodle joints on the streetside, but none of them see as much traffic throughout the day as this humble giant on Luang Prabang’s culinary scene.  There are also tons of fancy places around Luang Prabang that are catering to expensive tastes and diluting the fresh strong flavors of Lao cuisine.  So instead of forking out a wad of cash for something ultimately disappointing, why not cycle out to Madame Nom’s to eat something satisfying and authentic for a fraction of the price.

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