In May ’17 we went on a trip to the UNESCO world heritage site, Luang Prabang, Laos. It was my first trip after recovering from a broken ankle and I was nervous. But I had no need to be nervous as the town is so laid back, its people are so friendly and helpful, and the food is absolutely amazing. During that trip, one of the places that really impressed me with both their food and service was a restaurant called Khaiphaen (official Facebook page). I felt it worth investigating.
Khaiphaen is a restaurant in “training”…
I learned that Khaiphaen is actually a restaurant with a food and hospitality program to train students from the surrounding villages of Luang Prabang. Since the food is so delicious and reasonably priced, and there is such attention paid to presentation and service, and then learning a fantastic story is behind the enterprise–I just knew this would be something worth writing about and sharing! I was right, too.
I coordinated with the restaurant in advance of our visit and scheduled a Christmas dinner with family and friends to enjoy a Laotian feast. Let’s get straight to the food, shall we?
What is “Khaiphaen”?
“Khaiphaen” in the Laos language is the name for the river weed that grows wild in the Mekong River. This has become a staple dish and is usually fried with sesame seeds, slivers of garlic, and tomato. It’s often served with a variety of dips (my favorite being spicy chili and buffalo skin).
We started our meal off with a dish of fried Khaiphaen with sesame seeds, rice cakes, and dips of tomato and Hmong mushrooms (34,0000 kip). The perfect bite is to roll up a bit of the crispy river weed with a dollop of both dips! One bite of this tasty green and you’ll be ordering it at every meal.
No meal in Luang Prabang would be complete without a sampling of Lao Pork Sausages (40,000 kip). These sausages are very similar to the Thai Isaan sausages that have a bit of spice and lemongrass. The dish also came with a banana pepper and spring onion chutney. The grilled peppers had a nice charred flavor and was perfect for smearing on the slices of sausage.
Laap is not Larb!
One of my favorite dishes in Thailand is larb, a dish of minced meat, spices, herbs, and toasted rice. This looks like larb, but Thai “larb” and Lao “laap” are very different. This Laotian dish is not very spicy, lacks the salty fish sauce, and is very flavorful with veggies and herbs. This Chicken Laap (36,000 kip) is made with roasted squash, spring onions, chili, and lime and is perfect when mixed with sticky rice. It’s delicious and fresh!
These dumplings are amazing! This dish of River Fish with Monkey Mushroom Dumplings (52,000 kip) was complimented with a delicious roasted peanut sauce. It’s very flavorful and was a big hit with my dinner guests. My only regret was that there weren’t more to go around! If you like dumplings you will love this dish.
Luang Prabang Stew…my personal favorite!
During this trip I tried to eat Or Lam (Luang Prabang Stew) at just about every restaurant we went to. I would say if Laos had a gumbo this would be it (and I’m a fan of gumbo!). This Or Lam (40,000 kip) is made with pork, eggplant, pepper wood, and wild forest greens. Instead of okra you find in normal gumbo, the eggplant in this stew gives it the same rich consistency.
The real standout for this dish is the pepper wood. This is an actual chunk of wood–don’t eat it unless your doctor says you are in desperate need of fiber. The wood gives it a distinctive peppery/spice flavor. It’s kind of like black pepper, but oaky, too.
This is one of my favorite dishes. If you get the chance, try it!
Grilled buffalo, the other, other red meat!
I wanted everyone to have a chance to try buffalo, and this Grilled Buffalo Steak Sandwich (64,000 kip) seemed like a great way for everyone to get a taste. I also wanted to make sure that in case everything was a bit spicy there’d be something on the table for those folks spice averse to enjoy. This grilled buffalo sandwich is served on a thick baguette loaf with daikon radish, mayo, and local herbs. It’s a very filling sandwich so if you just want to sample it, make sure you have enough people for it to go around!
Save room for dessert!
All of the desserts at Khaiphaen are reasonably priced at 34,000 kip and are very unique and delicious. We ended up getting 3 varieties and sharing. I enjoyed the Sandan’s Cashew Crusted Banana Fritters which was served with candied kaffir lime slivers and coconut ice cream. My gal was in rapture with the Pumpkin Tart with thick slivers of candied coconut meat and ginger and 5 spice ice cream. My mother-in-law loved the Coconut and Pandan Panna Cotta with mango, crispy rice, and chili syrup. So much so that she had a difficult time sharing it.
A very relaxed restaurant…
Khaiphaen is a very relaxed restaurant with ample seating outside, inside on the ground floor, and upstairs on the second floor. There is information cards on their “sister” restaurants as well as arts and crafts that can be purchased which help support their program. Getting a lunch table isn’t usually a problem as most tourists are out and about taking tours. However it is wise especially around the busy tourist season to make a reservation in advance. You can book directly through this link .
A chat with the Manager…
As I was able to coordinate in advance with the restaurant, I was afforded an opportunity to speak with the manager and learn a little bit about Kaiphaen and the special work that they do. The manager, Anousin (Noy) has been working at Kaiphaen since it opened in May ’15.
Kaiphaen is a sister restaurant to several other restaurants throughout Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and a new restaurant in Myanmar. All of these restaurants fall under the TREE Alliance Organization (TREE is an abbreviation for Training Restaurants for Employment and Entrepreneurship). These restaurants are basically training grounds to build futures for former street youth, as well as marginalized young people and adults.
Noy explained to me that in and around Luang Prabang there are social workers which visit the villages where the youth may not have schools or opportunities. These social workers explain what the program is about to those interested. Candidates interested in the opportunity receive a health assessment at the local hospital. Those who pass their assessment are provided housing and food and “enrolled” in Kaiphaen’s 12 month program. The majority of the students are Hmong who are unable to read or speak the Lao language.
The students start from ground zero. The program begins with food safety and hygiene with the first 9 months being spent in the kitchen. During this time they learn to speak and read Lao, and cook and present the dishes on the menu. After 9 months of kitchen time, they transition to the front area as servers and cashiers.
In the final 3 months they learn to perform cash transactions and serve customers from all around the world. During my time in Luang Prabang this was the best customer service experience I received as they are so focused on providing a good experience!
The students receive their education from the permanent staff or “teachers”. These teachers are skilled chefs, and even the manager. The students receive free room and board but are unpaid. Their spending money comes from the tip jar which is divided amongst the students based on the number of days they worked during the month. But for these students they are in it for the end game–training for a permanent job.
Kaiphaen provides a skilled labor!
Kaiphaen has networked with the local hotels and restaurants to be able to provide them with a skilled labor force that has worked in both the front and back end of a restaurant. Additionally this work force is skilled and comfortable with serving customers from all around the world and customer service focused. These are very desirable skills for these industries and the higher end hotel and restaurants are chomping at the bit to hire them on.
At the end of 12 months the students are not placed into jobs. Because of their experience and training they receive several competitive employment opportunities and are able to go to each one to decide which place they would prefer to work.
Seeing these “graduation” moments is Noy’s proudest milestones managing Khaiphaen.
I want to support this. Where is it?
Khaiphaen is located near the Mekong River side and is walking distance from most locations of the Luang Prabang town. Please note that they are closed on Sundays. For excellent Luang Prabang cuisine, service, prices, and to support a great program I highly recommend you visit Khaiphaen!