Before we visited Luang Prabang, Lao cuisine was completely unknown to me and I was excited to explore all the new dishes. Lao cuisine focuses on fresh ingredients and includes lots of herbs and fresh vegetables, with plenty of galangal and lemongrass thrown into dishes.
The staple of the Lao diet is Khao Niew – sticky rice. My two-year old son became addicted to sticky rice while we were in Luang Prabang. And as a bonus, it’s meant to be eaten with your fingers!
Laap is Laos’ most famous dish, consisting of chopped meat, fish or chicken, flavoured with mint leaves, chilli, fish sauce and lime juice. It is quite dry and is served with raw vegetables and sticky rice.
Other dishes to look out for include Or Lam – a vegetable stew, Sai Oua – Lao sausage, Sin Savanh – a kind of Lao beef jerky, Tam Mak Houng – spicy green papaya salad, Khao Poon – noodle soup, and the famous Luang Prabang Salad.
After eating our way through town, here are what we found to be the best restaurants in Luang Prabang:
Tamarind is a great place to start your adventure with Lao cuisine. Run by Lao national Joy, and his Australian wife Caroline, Tamarind aims to introduce Lao specialties to visitors in a welcoming homely environment.
We enjoyed our first try of Laap at Tamarind, and also loved their house specialty – Lemongrass stuffed with Chicken and Herbs. Don’t forget to order yourself a Lao Lao cocktail – made with potent rice whisky, this is sure to get your meal off to a good start!
Also on offer at Tamarind is a range of set menus featuring several dishes to introduce you to the variety of Lao cuisine, and every Friday they hold a Barbecue Fish Feast – a convivial hands-on shared meal, where they demonstrate eating etiquette and explain the significance of the event.
Tamarind also runs a cooking school. Although we decided not to burden the chefs with our 2-year old and 4-year old, it comes highly recommended by many people.
Visit the Tamarind website here
L’elephant is Luang Prabang’s most famous high-end restaurant, and you will need to book ahead to get a table. Set in an open-air 1960s colonial building, thanks to its popularity, L’elephant has a happy and bustling vibe about it.
The menu serves up both French and Lao cuisine, with fresh and seasonal ingredients coming from the restaurant’s own organic garden. As can be expected, there is a crossover between cuisines, especially on the French menu, where traditional French dishes are presented using local ingredients – such as the Slow-cooked Mekong Fish with Old-fashioned Mustard, and the Three Medallions of Buffalo with Fresh Thyme. Although you can also expect plenty of duck, frogs legs and potato dauphinoise.
On the Lao menu, you will find all the traditional favourites, and if you’re feeling hungry you can opt for the multi-course tasting menu.
The best thing for us was the wine list – after surviving on Beer Lao for much of our visit to Luang Prabang, their extensive wine list with good options by the glass was a welcome attraction.
Visit the L’elephant Restaurant website here
Located in a restored historical building on the main street of Luang Prabang, 3 Nagas is one of Luang Prabang’s best-known and most upmarket restaurants, and our meal here was one of our most memorable. We took a table under the mango trees in the leafy courtyard area, overlooking the main street and sipped on Lemongrass Mojitos as we perused their menu of traditional Lao cuisine.
We dined on beautifully presented Mekong River Fish Steamed in Banana Leaf, Pork sautéed with Garlic and Ginger and some excellent Spring Rolls. The star of the night for me though was their curry of shredded chicken with coconut milk – sensational with the purple sticky rice, and I continued to crave it for the rest of our visit.
We didn’t try the Buffalo in Coffee Sauce, but I have heard that it is excellent.
Oh, and don’t miss the homemade coconut ice cream!
Visit the 3 Nagas website here
We really enjoyed our leisurely lunch at Coconut Garden, choosing to feast on a selection of nibbly dishes and starters. First up was Sin Savanh – Lao beef jerky, served with Jaew Maak Len, a tomato-based chilli dip. The perfect accompaniment to a cold Beer Lao.
We also chose some excellent spring rolls, tried out the Kai Paen (crispy river weed with sesame seeds), some satisfyingly spicy Lao Sausage, and the famous Luang Prabang salad – a beautiful salad with egg, tomato, watercress and crispy shallots served with a delicious creamy egg-based dressing.
There was also pizza on the menu, which kept the kids happy, although the most exciting thing for them was the soft-serve ice cream machine.
Coconut Garden has two gorgeous courtyards to choose from – one facing the street and the other tucked away at the back, in addition to indoor upstairs seating with views over the street. We chose to sit out front, but in an evening the back courtyard with its swinging coloured lanterns would be a stunning setting for a meal.
Visit the Coconut Garden website here
I was very skeptical about Blue Lagoon, but we had made no plans and had already ticked off all our must-do restaurants, and Blue Lagoon was at the right end of town for our hotel, and seemed to get good reviews.
You can probably understand my sense of doubt, when I explain the menu to you: a blend of Laotian and Swiss classics. Say what? Not exactly what you would expect in deepest darkest Southeast Asia.
So I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and found a beautiful courtyard oasis, with outdoor tables placed under swaying lanterns, ambient jazz music and a peaceful sense of calm (until we arrived with our two children that is!)
By the looks of the clientele and the way they were dressed, this restaurant is obviously one that is recommended by concierges at the high-end hotels around Luang Prabang. No backpacker chic in here.
Service was attentive, the wine list was good (and wine served in Riedel glasses no less), and the chef himself put in an appearance later in the evening, wandering around the tables to ensure everyone had enjoyed their meal. While the food here was good, the overall ambience of the evening made it one of our favourite meals out.
Visit the Blue Lagoon website here
We managed to squeeze in a final traditional Lao lunch at Tamnak Lao on our last day in Luang Prabang. It was a good choice for a final farewell to Laos cuisine. We took a seat on the street side terrace of the colonial-style building, where could watch Luang Prabang life slowly unfold.
The food was excellent – crispy spring rolls, chicken casserole, Lao sausage, fried eggplant… and of course Sticky Rice and Beer Lao!
Tamnak Lao also runs a cooking school, both during the day and evening.
Visit the Tamnak Lao website here
Although not a specific restaurant, an experience not to be missed is sunset drinks along the river. The riverbank between the two boat piers is lined with bars and restaurants, so take a wander down there before sunset and choose a spot to enjoy a cold Beer Lao as the sun sinks behind the mountains on the other side the Mekong. Magical.
We also enjoyed meals in the restaurants at both of the hotels we stayed in in Luang Prabang. Read more and check out our hotel reviews of the Angsana Maison Souvannaphoum and the Luang Say Residence here.
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