The business cards for 88 Oriental Foods boast that the little Asian market at 291 W. University Ave. in St. Paul has “The Best Larb in Town.”
That’s a pretty bold boast, considering that there are at least half a dozen restaurants within a few blocks that offer some version of this specialty of Laos and northeastern Thailand. Larb, sometimes spelled laab, is the Lao/Thai answer to steak tartare – chopped up beef – either raw or cooked mixed with toasted ground rice, fish sauce, lime juice and chilis.
Is 88 Oriental’s version really the best in town? I can’t say, because when I ordered it, I wimped out. I ordered it without two of the traditional ingredients, beef tripe and beef bile, and I asked the cook to go really easy on the hot peppers. I don’t actually mind beef tripe, but the one time I tried larb with bile, I found it absolutely inedible. (“If you have ever had acid reflux, you can get a sense of the flavor. Okay, not quite that bad, but very bitter.”)
88 Oriental’s version may not have been completely authentic, as I ordered it, but it was quite tasty, as was everything else I have sampled – The larb is made to order, as is another house specialty, tam som, the pungent salad of shredded fresh green papaya, tomatoes, garlic and fish sauce known in Thai as som tam. I especially the enjoyed the chicken in red curry ($3.99 for a 16-ounce container) – chunks of boneless chicken with squash, bamboo shoots and oyster mushrooms in a mild but flavorful red coconut curry sauce. (If I understood owner Vanh Ratsamy correctly, it’s thef coconut milk that makes it Thai rather than Laotian.)
On weekends, Ratsamy can sometimes be found barbecuing on a grill set up in the parking lot in front of 88 Oriental. The selection of grilled meats featured in the display case includes skewers of marinated barbecued pork (plain and red-glazed), chicken wings, and spicy chicken and pork sausages.
Other options from the hot deli section include a couple of dishes made of what looked like intestines and organ meats, and a clear soup of pork belly and bamboo shoots in s savory clear five spice-flavored broth. There is also a small selection of prepared takeout items for sale, such as sweet and savory steamed buns, Laotian beef jerky nd noodle soups and salads and spring rolls.