A funny thing happened to me at Hot Cafe the other day.
I sat down with a friend in a padded booth by the window, as I’ve done a number of times lately, and ordered the same five or six dishes I’ve come to love. Then, the waiter, who recognized me, wondered if the papaya salad had been too spicy for me on my last visit.
He was right. At the previous lunch, I’d made the mistake of requesting that familiar combo of shredded green papaya, tomatoes, lime juice, fish sauce and chiles be made “extra spicy.”
The salad that arrived was, in fact, extra spicy. The crunchy, cool papaya shreds were searing with the heat of fresh chiles, the sauce deeply funky and rich with the fermented flavor of fish sauce. There was nothing familiar or ordinary about this papaya salad. The buddy I’d brought to lunch, another fan of spicy food, ate bite after bite, tears of pain and joy streaming down his face. We couldn’t quite finish it.
So, for the first time I can remember at a Southeast Asian restaurant in Atlanta, I ordered the papaya salad less spicy than the previous time. Most of the time, I find myself begging for more heat, more funk, more acid from Atlanta’s decidedly flavor-conservative Thai joints, without much luck. Hot Cafe has flavor in spades.
Hot Cafe is, according to a sign on the exterior awning, a place that serves food from Laos, Thailand and China. Don’t let the sign fool you. Hot Cafe serves good Laotian food and has some other stuff on the menu, too. Don’t bother with the other stuff.
Tot Sayngavong and her brother, Kham, the waiter who wondered about my salad, have run this place for two decades since emigrating from Laos in the 1980s.
I find it somewhat embarrassing to admit that, despite writing about restaurants for years in Atlanta, I’ve only recently discovered the pleasures of this place. If you, too, have missed this strip mall joint, hidden down on a stretch of decidedly unglamorous road south of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, it’s time to correct that.
Fair warning: This is not exactly a place of creature comforts. The dining room consists of a few beat-up booths, big round tables, and a TV playing dull daytime fare. On my last visit, the hallway to the bathroom had one of those flickering half-dead fluorescent lights that you usually see on horror movie sets.
But a seat in one of those booths is more than comfortable enough. You’ll want to start with a cool drink. The Thai tea is as bright orange, sweet and creamy as you’d expect, but there are other, more uncommon, options, too. The o-liang is a sweet, cold coffee, served black. The egg soda contains just what it sounds like, raw egg and Sprite, but the resulting mix is nearly creamy, like a carbonated lemon-lime milkshake.
Those sweet, cool flavors will come in handy to soothe the burn of that potent papaya salad, which also comes with a plate of cabbage and pork rinds to help with the cooling.
You’ll also want a plate of larb (spelled “lab” on the Hot Cafe menu), a ground meat salad mixed with red onion, scallions, cilantro and a heavy dose of toasted rice powder that gives the dish a rich, almost smoky depth. I prefer ground chicken, but the pork is good, too. That plate comes with a bouquet’s worth of Thai basil, cold romaine leaves and cucumbers. I like using the romaine to make a little lettuce wrap stuffed full of larb, basil and crunchy cucumbers.
Speaking of rice, order some sticky rice, which will arrive in a wicker basket and is so glutinous that it begs to be plucked apart with bare fingers. That’ll come in handy rounding out, say, a plate of the dry fried beef. This is a dish of thin sheets of beef, richened with salty-sweet marinade and fried until almost crisp. There’s an almost candy-like appeal to this beef jerky, without being cloyingly sweet.
A plate of noodles certainly will seem appropriate. The pad thai is just fine. The lard na, a wide rice noodle swimming in brown gravy, is satisfying, though that brown gravy is less focused than the other flavors on offer here.
What you really can’t miss is the sausage. It’ll arrive on a plate of lettuce, a link with a crispy, taut casing, in thick slices. To begin with, the pork here has been roughly chopped, rather than ground, so that the texture has a pleasant, moist chew and balance of meat and fat. Mixed in, though, is a combination of lemongrass, kaffir lime and, I’m sure, a couple of other secret seasoning touches that make this such a memorable link.
Once you’ve ordered all of that, look around the table. You’ll see a half-dozen plates, too much food for two, probably plenty for three. That’s what happens to me every time. After it happens to you, you’ll know why I keep coming back.
Hot Cafe, 5286 Riverdale Road, Forest Park. 770-996-6544.