Maneelap Srimongkoun — a wonderful name redolent in vowels — makes rich, spicy, gutsy food and I’m very glad it’s there for a quiet Laotian fix.
I like quiet restaurants, and at Maneelap, there are great distances between tables in the large, L-shaped room. Even when the room is moderately full, you can pretend no one else is there — it’s a rarity in San Francisco to have space around you, uncrowded by chairs.
The deep-fried quail, marinated in soy and garlic and fried without batter, is served in snack-size pieces. They are sticky with fat, crisp in places, and the flesh is firm, plump and fun to pick off the bone with my front teeth. The flavoring builds subtly, and the chili garlic sauce punctuates the nosh-fest with its raw, sinus-clearing heat.
The kao poon is another must-try. Made with a creamy, luscious, spicy (mild, by the way, is very much still spicy here) curry broth, shreds of white chicken, pliable vermicelli noodles and crowned with crunchy greens, mint and cilantro, it has all the comfort and piquancy of pozole, using a completely different palate of ingredients and flavors.
The nam kao tod, a dish of sticky rice and raw preserved pork, came as a complete surprise. It quickly whisked away all my reservations about eating raw pork. The lime-soaked, fermented meat is tender, the sticky rice crispy-chewy, and it’s showered with cilantro, mint and a touch of peanut as if it didn’t have enough interest. It delights with its textures and fluctuating flavors. Every bite has a different high note, whether it is a stronger kiss of lime or a bit of sticky rice rolling on the tongue. It defies blandness.
The chicken soup — kao piak — is, like all iconic soups, simple, to the point and nourishing. Served with thick, chewy, handmade noodles, it may summon childhood memories.
The Thai side of the menu is full of the expected, but it’s done with fresh ingredients. The homemade green curry, with lemongrass and galangal discernible on the palate, is worthy of drowning your rice in. If I lived in the neighborhood, this would be my go-to Thai joint.
One word of caution: Tell them spicy and it will singe your teeth. Mild is still spicy.
Confident in Maneelap’s ability to deliver, I now want to try all the Laotian items. The food has a homey quality, but there’s panache in its bounty of herbs, the continual pops and zings of flavor, the minor chili tingles and the ever-changing textures. The service is inexperienced, even clumsy, but the restaurant is quiet and bright enough to linger over dinner, talking and enjoying the food.
Location: 4995 Mission St., S.F. (at Italy Avenue)
Contact: (415) 347-7755
Hours: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Sundays
Recommended dishes: marinated quail ($8.99), kao poon ($8.99), nam kao tod ($8.99), kao piak ($8.99).
Price range: $5.99-$12.99
Credit Cards: All major