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Joi's Kitchen offers a tasty introduction to the food of Laos.
While appreciation for Southeast Asian food continues to grow, Laotian food has remained under the radar. Every big neighborhood has its go-to Thai restaurant or pho joint, but I’m not sure your average Californian could name even a single foodstuff from Laos, let alone pick a favorite Laotian restaurant. (In fact, I’m not sure many of us could find Laos on a map, but that’s another issue entirely.)
Joi’s Kitchen opened a year ago serving takeout Laotian food (no table service), and it offers an easy introduction to Laotian cooking. Tucked into a nondescript Natomas strip mall, the place is easy to miss. Joi’s anonymity is only compounded by the lack of excitement around dining in Natomas: When’s the last time you felt hungry and thought, “Quick, gotta get to Truxel”?
But this bright, clean, well-lit little restaurant busts out fresh food with complex, exciting flavors. The most conceptually thrilling item on the menu is the angel wings, a Laotian classic. Chicken wings are deboned, stuffed with more chicken, vermicelli noodles and minced vegetables, then breaded, deep fried and served with a sweet, spicy dip. Think KFC meets turducken, Laos-style.
Other standouts include all three of the salads offered. Larb gai, finely minced chicken tossed with mint, cilantro and shallots, is tangy, sharp and oddly comforting. Yum talay, a seafood salad, is a lesson in smart contrast, with the sweetness and chewiness of the mussels and squid, the earthiness and crunch of the vegetables, the tartness of the lime, and a slightly sour dressing. The most enjoyable and most challenging is the green papaya salad, a simple, refreshing mix of shredded papaya, tomatoes, peppers and rice noodles soaked in a tamarind dressing that’s heavy on the chilies. I saved plenty of it for lunch the following day, hoping the heat would mellow out after a night in the fridge, but I was reaching for the Kleenex to dot at my nose and eyes within minutes of cracking the Styrofoam box open again. Be warned: Medium spicy at Joi’s means nuclear detonation spicy at any other restaurant, so you might want to start by ordering mild and working your way up. Then again, if you’re a gastronomic masochist like me, embrace the hurt. It’s delicious, and there’s always milk tea to wash the capsaicin down.
With the Natomas culinary landscape lagging well behind most other parts of Sacramento, it’s cool to find that at least in one realm—Southeast Asian food generally, Laotian food specifically—this suburb has a leg up on the rest of the city. I’m OK with having to cross Garden Highway to Joi’s Kitchen for my mango fried rice and angel wings.
Angel Wings ($7.95)
Larb Gai ($9.95)
Yum Talay ($11.95)
Papaya Salad ($7.95)
Laotian Sausage ($6.95)
4301 Truxel Road; (916) 571-5771