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Crunchy coconut rice with spicy Kaffir lime sausage and baby iceberg lettuce

Off With a Bang Bang

by The Editors | Photography by Noah Fecks | Manhattan magazine | September 27, 2013

Friends always ask, “What do you love lately? Where do you really want to go?” Eating out, as I do, six evenings a week, I often need a break from endlessly stalking the new. I went to the wildly noisy Quality Italian steakhouse when they were still finishing the decor and was back the next week. Never mind the raucous crowd, I couldn’t wait.

Same craving for Khe-Yo in Tribeca—Marc Forgione’s partnership with his chef de cuisine. That beckoned, too. For 10 years, Soulayphet Schwader—or Phet, as he’s called—cooked Forgione’s food. Now at Khe-Yo, he was cooking the Laotian dishes of his family.

And it’s not just me who’s addicted to Khe-Yo’s shivery chili tang. A week later, I’m back with friends who discovered it on their own—Uptown grownups. I mention that just to make it clear that it’s not only hipsters and local hotheads who’ve fallen for Phet’s remarkable complex crunchy coconut rice with spicy Kaffir lime sausage, which you wrap in a baby iceberg lettuce leaf. You drag it through a tawny tomato jam or the torrid bang bang sauce that arrives alongside sticky rice as a welcome gift.

How much you treasure those gifts—especially, how often you resort to the liquid explosive—tells me whether you’re the type for Khe-Yo. “Sticky rice tastes better when you eat it with your hands,” the chef advises on the menu. Sticky fingers is a theme here. Can you handle that?

The waiter will remind you when he delivers the cute, little straw sticky-rice tower and its sides. “The chef hopes you’ll use your fingers to roll the rice into a ball and dip it.” There will be “fingers” rollers, and those with chopstick moves and some who’ll need seconds on rice.

There’s a real bar here, too. The duchess who favors Hendrick’s can get it. The bartender treats a Cosmopolitan with respect. And I have to have something with rum. And you don’t have to pretend you don’t mind paying $16 for a cocktail because they’re $13 here.

Meanwhile, no one seems spooked tonight. Not by battered duck tongues in the Jurgielewicz Farm duck salad with lemongrass and rau-rum leaves, not by the pork belly and shrimp crispy rolls meant to wrap in Bibb lettuce along with slivers of carrot, shiso and basil. An intuitive waiter remembers to bring an extra roll for the six of us, and more bang bang. Heaven forbid we should run out.

We might have ordered the fine bamboo-grilled ginger quail that we loved on my first visit. But we were just three then, and I never even got a smidgen of the stuffing. I suppose we could have ordered three quail for our six. It’s just $13. I also steered the crowd away from smashed green papaya salad because I found it so boring first time around. The pork jowl red curry with fairy tale eggplant and baby shiitakes was a strikeout that night too—a bland soupy dish. Phet may have taken my comment to heart and transformed the dish. I might check that out next time.

I expected to hear from a tender-tongue or two about my favorite heads-on prawns in a seriously torrid bath of chili heat. It comes with thick chunks of toast to dip in, an homage to a lobster dish at Forgione. We had to send for more bread. Maybe the lime, soy butter and Sriracha swamp has been toned down a little. No one complained. And the woman on my left was eating it with a spoon, her husband jostling with her spoon to douse more sticky rice balls.

We’re a more or less easygoing white meat-dark meat bunch tonight, so one portion of the grilled half-chicken with sweet chili-honey and cucumber is more than enough. Especially after juicy caramelized lemongrass spare ribs, cooked till near falling off the bone.

Let me confess, I would not have ordered the evening’s special pig’s face for this group. But one of our group did not hesitate. When it hit the table—a very small pig. You could see his jaw and the teeth, and for a minute you might consider kneeling down to pray with a warrior from PETA. Needless to say, that rash regret dissipated with the first bite of crunchy skin, followed by a second bite of juicy cheek.

I can’t say all six of us gazed at the pig’s face and chopsticked or forked away. I believe one or two waited for the pig procurer to slice and dice and distribute all around. What a pig. Not a stringy bit of flesh in his face. I scraped the fat away and had more than my share of skin. I remember thinking how far away I felt from New York. I could have been in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, where the food was good—but not this good. Not bad for just $120 per couple, tax and tip included.

There was only one dessert offered—rice pudding with strawberries and cashew brittle—and I fully expected we’d order it, but no one could think of eating another bite. A sweet after-dinner drink, the traditional lao-lao liquor, Phet’s family recipe, is offered as an alternative. But the air conditioner had gone out on a devilishly warm night and even those who must have dessert even when they can’t eat another bite wanted to hit the street.

I won’t say the rice pudding occupied our conversation all the way uptown. Halfway, maybe. I’m sure if I lived nearby, I’d be back at lunch for the bánh mì sandwiches available up front at Khe-Yosk, the restaurant’s takeout counter. Geography saves me.