The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it’s formally known, is somewhat smaller than the state of Oregon, but it used to be a lot bigger. When the French invaded Southeast Asia (known in the 19th-century West as Indochina), they set the Mekong River as the border between Thailand and Laos, effectively splitting off a significant portion of the country and transforming it into what is now the Isan region of Thailand.
James Syhabout, chef and owner of Hawker Fare (as well as Commis in nearby Oakland), has written one of the few books about the region’s cuisine available in the US, Hawker Fare: Stories & Recipes From a Refugee Chef’s Isan Thai & Lao Roots. While Commis is a New American fine-dining restaurant, at Hawker Fare Syhabout serves both Lao and Isan Thai food, which speaks to the cultural heritage of his family. He says the food of Laos and Isan are in many ways one and the same: “The border’s just a political border,” he explains. “One-third of Thailand is people from Isan, and they’re culturally Lao.”