One of the great local developments the last few years has been the proliferation of ever-better larb, sometimes written laab. It’s a dish popular throughout Southeast Asia, with Laotian, Hmong, Cambodian, and Thai variations. Basically it’s finely chopped or ground meat, amply seasoned, with lime, chili, fish sauce, tamarind, and smoky roasted rice powder, and served with an abundance of vegetables, herbs, fresh lime, and rice. And I really mean an abundance—this is the way to eat every sort of vegetable at the farmer’s market, and lots of them, by using them as wrappers, using them as scoops, using the larb as a sort of dip for them, and so on. The dish in its entirety: sort of like a lettuce-cup, sort of like a taco-salad, sort of like a French crudite platter with garlic-heavy aioli, more like it’s own thing entirely. And it’s just great! It’s a great way get all five of your servings of vegetables in a single sitting, it’s a great way to eat light and healthy with abundance, it’s just a great dish. Currently, my favorite restaurant version is at Bangkok Thai Deli, in St. Paul, and it’s newer offshoot, Krungthep Thai on Eat Street in Minneapolis. I put those in my top 10 dishes available in the Twin Cities, hands down. The light and fiery meat, the zip of fresh herbs, if you built an axis of hot-salty-sour-deep-and-fresh every point would go to 11, as they say in Spinal Tap, but because they all go to 11, the dish works.
My one sadness? My day-to-day life prevents me from eating this every day. Until now! I was at Shuang Hur the other day, and what did I see on the shelves of that Asian supermarket? “Laab Powder Seasoning Mix,” the “Hmong Family Brand,” packed and imported from Thailand for St. Paul’s Xieng Tai Asian Food. It’s sort of like taco seasoning powder, you just add it to your own cooked ground meat, and add fish sauce if you like, and fresh lime juice, and serve with a platter of veggies and lettuce—it’s so good! I’ve made this dish now with fresh ground meat, and also, in heights of laziness, I’ve just mixed the powder with soy and lime juice to make a dipping sauce for leftover chicken or beef to be folded into lettuce. The jar, which I paid $3.95 for, contains both a chili-and-spice mixture, and another bag inside of roasted-rice-and-spice powder. I have to guess it’s going to provide me with a solid 20, if not 40, meals, though of course someone who eats hotter will go through a jar faster.
Bangkok Thai Deli, 315 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-224-4300
Krungthep Thai Cuisine, 2523 Nicollet Ave., 612-824-7721
Shuang Hur, 654 University Ave., St. Paul, 651-251-2196 and 2710 Nicollet Ave., Mpls, 612-872-8606