During the course of my life I’ve eaten lots of things. Chicken, steaks and ostrich back home in California, crocodile in New Orleans, bison in Atlanta and an assortments of insects in Asia. One thing yet to cross my palate, until recently, was Water Buffalo. Marking the half-way point on a two day slow-boat journey down the Mekong River in Laos is a tiny town called Pak Beng. Without a horse to be seen, I think the town gave the meaning to the term “One horse town.”
Pak Beng is one road town right on the river bank, the slow-boat equivalent to a truck stop. The town consists of a handful of guest houses, two Indian restaurants (very surprising), one bar, a small internet cafe and a small group of local vendors selling everything from chips, sodas and Bar-B-Q to bike tires and kids toys.
After locating a reasonably priced guest house and dropping off the bags it was time to find some grub. The guest house had a small restaurant, however the prices looked a bit steep even for Pak Beng standards. With one road in the town, and not a whole lot in terms of choice, I set out to see what I could uncover. I passed on Indian, twice, and kept heading down the road. I did stop at a small Bar-B-Q grill to pick up a sausage as an appetizer. It looked mouthwatering and was served wrapped in a banana leaf. The taste was great. Hot off the grill and cooked to perfection. Just to the point of crispy, when you bite in and there is sort of a “Pop” allowing all the flavors to explode. This was not the low-fat version either, the juices mixed with the meat and fat made it quite tasty! I could have seen myself eating the entire stack on the grill, however I exercised some self- control and kept looking for a dinner spot.
About 200 yards down the road I was “Cat-called” over by a local restaurateur. The Oun Hoan restaurant was brightly lit and looked like a place I could trust. We exchanged introductions, I told the maître de my name was Mike and he looked a bit confused. I said “Like Michael Jackson.” His face immediately beamed with clarity. He introduced himself and told me his name was Neung. He asked me to look at his menu and come in. The menu was outside the restaurant. He had two white dry-erase boards set up, one about 6 feet tall and the other slightly smaller, covered from top to bottom with options. The whole array of local Laotian foods was there. A bit overwhelmed by all the choices my eyes kept darting back to the middle where BUFFALO CURRY was written slightly larger than the rest. I weighed the options then decided to ask my host what he thought was the best dish on the menu tonight. He immediately responded with “Buffalo.” I said “Buffalo?” His reply was “Yes, Mekong River Water Buffalo.” He then pitched me the line written on the top of his the menu, “If no good….no pay!” I was leaning the buffalo’s way but he tipped the scales and sold me after mentioning Beer Lao was only 8,000 Kip and he had Michael Jackson to play on his stereo. I was ready to sample the Mekong’s finest!
Waiting for the meal to be prepared I enjoyed a cold Beer Lao and some of Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. There is probably nothing that could have psyched me up better to chow down on water buffalo than a little “Dirty Diana,” “P.Y.T” and “Thriller.”
Upon delivery of the dish my sight and smell senses were awaken first. Neung delivered a plate of rice (standard) and a rather large bowl of green curry soup which had vegetables mixed in with the buffalo. It looked amazing and the smells were fantastic. I could smell the curry, the vegetables (most notably the onions) and the meat. Neung hit this one out of the park and I was in for a treat.
The first bite did not disappoint at all. The curry was extremely tasty. The coconut milk made the broth sweet and slightly mild, yet there was a little spice to it. The flavor went along perfect with the water buffalo and the veggies. The veggies were fresh and crisp. Each bite was fantastic, flavorful broth and in-season greens, YUM! Now to the water buffalo. I didn’t waste any time getting into this. The pieces were cut in thin rectangular strips, and he wasn’t shy with the portions added to the curry. On first bite it was tender, juicy and really flavorful. It had a texture and consistency similar to Kobe beef, yet not as soft. It was first-rate! I’m willing to bet there are no pesticides in the feed and this buffalo one was raised au natural. The beef was extremely lean and not one piece was overly fatty or gristly. The perfect bite was a piece of water buffalo, a snow pea and a carrot on top of a spoon-full of the curry…Deeeelicious!! I’m heading back to see Neung next time I’m in Pak Beng!
People say songs are great at taking you back at a certain place in time. I’m definitely sure every time I hear MJ in the future I’ll be taken back to Pak Beng and the water buffalo curry. It was more than good….and I paid!