Vientiane Palace

As I wrote last Friday, this week is Restaurant Week here in Madison, and so I'm going to use this as an opportunity to write some reviews of my favorite restaurants, even though few of these are actually participating in the official Restaurant Week deal.

The place I must begin when discussing Madison restaurants is the one, the only: Vientiane Palace Restaurant.

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Vientiane is among my favorite places in town, and is hands-down Justin's favorite. I have to say though, this is a divisive restaurant--with fierce devotees and equally fierce bashers. It's not for the faint of stomach, nor for those who hold up ambiance or conventional attentive service as all-important.


Why go eat there, then, you may ask? Well, let me begin with the food. When I first ate at Vientiane back in 2006, I was hungry for the light, coconut-milky curries of the Thai food I knew and loved back in St. Louis, and so I found the offerings to be too heavy, too greasy, and just not what I expected. But before long, my cravings had been entirely redirected, and I found it difficult to go for too long without the amazing flavors and textures of this place. I've really never tasted anything quite like it, and encourage you to try it for yourselves. But because not everything on the menu is equally startlingly delicious, here's a quick recap of my four favorite dishes at VNTN (as it is sometimes affectionately known, by me, at least). We get them all with tofu (though any meat is allowed), and somewhere between 2 and 2.5 stars on the spiciness scale (more on that below).

Noodles With Soy Sauce
Though this dish couldn't have a name that is much more boring, the firm, toothsome noodles, combined with the just-cooked, still-crisp broccoli and the deep rich flavor of the sauce, makes this dish one of my all-time favorites and the first dish we fell in love with at this restaurant.

24B, aka Lao Noodle Kee Mow
This is the dish I recommend to all newcomers--the one whose unique mix of flavors is almost overwhelming in its surprising yumminess. 24B brings together big fat flat noodles with a tomato-Thai basil sort of sauce that will make you see that classic Italian combination in a whole new light:

Squash Curry: This isn't the coconut-milk-based curry of many Thai restaurants. Instead this thick, red, curry-spiked sauce holds a mix of sweet chunks of winter squash, small round Thai eggplants, onions, and a meat of your choice. The flavor is bold and powerful, and is especially satisfying in the middle of a Wisconsin winter (or fall, or spring...ore even summer!)

Pad Thai: This workhouse of Thai cuisine is, again, is perhaps not what many Thai restaurant aficionados are used to. But once you get over any residual unmet expectations, the dry, sweet and sour simplicity of the noodles and peanuts and bean sprouts is satisfying.

But among all this deliciousness, there is a cautionary note: some people who get these dishes too spicy experience post-Vientiane digestive symptoms. I'll let Justin's favorite back-to-back Yelp reviews do the talking:

#1: "Tasted OK but wasn't worth the diarrhea that came about 30 minutes later."
#2: "always hits the spot and it is totally worth the diarrhea"

I've never had this particular issue myself, but I should say that Vientiane's spice scale is definitely skewed toward the spicy end. I'd say their mild or 1 star, is much closer to a medium elsewhere. On a 0-4 scale, 0 is mild, 1 is medium, 2 is spicy, 3 is very spicy, and 4 is practically unbearable. So, just keep this in mind!

The other cautionary note: Don't go in to this place expecting the sort of obsequiousness that you get from a typical American waiter. Though there are some (overly) nice teenage girls who staff the place on weekend nights, the woman who will typically be at the door when you arrive will simply grunt at you as she hands you a few menus and lets you find your own seat. You might think her cold, or mean. 

But do not be deceived. After years of loyal attendance and an interesting encounter or two, we've gotten to the point where we've begun to work our way in...and are now even getting free soup!

But now I feel that this post is running long, and I think I'll save the stories of our encounter with our favorite Vientiane waitress until I learn her name (which I've been trying to do for the past year). Stay tuned.

In the mean time, let this photo, of plates licked clean and me with a goofy grin on my face, stand as a testament to how much I love this place. 

Try it, try it, you will see!

See all my "Restaurant Week" posts: Vientiane, Maharani, Fugu, Lao Laan Xang, Dayton Street Grille 


  1. We should hit this place up when Leigh and I come to visit. I think I might have gone there a few years ago with Justin and it was excellent.

  2. What a timely post! I thought of you (and JH) this weekend as I chowed down on u-dong noodles at Thai Gaiyang. We'll definitely have to go when you guys come to STL. --NB


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