The moment I settled into the golden glow of Bida Manda, the atmosphere so disarmed me that I set aside my worries about being unfamiliar with Laotian cuisine and vowed to simply eat and enjoy.
Light cascaded off screens made of hundreds of bare, blond tree limbs that cover swaths of the ceiling and walls. Crooked and irregular, the branches stack like a handmade puzzle. The limbs were collected from the mountains of North Carolina, and the smooth, slab tabletops are salvaged wood from old barns and churches around the state. On the wall, a series of oversize photos of Laotian Buddhist monks wearing traditional saffron-hued robes pop like a flashbulb. The elegant blend of the exotic and the familiar creates a bold visual identity for the space, formerly the longtime home of downtown Raleigh favorite Duck & Dumpling.
The menu reinforces this theme. Dishes like tom ka gai, pho, baguette sandwiches, chicken curry and larb will ring a bell with anyone who loves the food of Laos' neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. But Bida Manda's ingredients and interpretations differ enough to make its renditions distinct.
We began our first meal here with an order of spring rolls filled with ground pork and tuna ceviche. As hearty as Chinese-restaurant egg rolls, Bida Manda's versions wore a thick wrap, fried to a sturdy crispiness. Inside, the pork filling was rich, substantial and infused with peppery bite. The ceviche, meanwhile, seemed light enough to float away. Four delicate, rice paper bowls held a mélange of finely diced azalea-pink tuna tossed in citrus juice, offering a stark contrast between the fleshiness of the fish and the crunchiness of its containers.
The appetizers were substantial enough on their own, but we couldn't help but empty two baskets of prawn chips our server provided, gratis. Texturally similar to puffed vegetable snacks or puffy Cheetos, the thick, curled chips delivered the unmistakable flavor of dried shrimp without a hint of unpleasant fishiness.
When my bowl of pork belly soup arrived, I knew leftovers were in my future. At first taste, the soup recalled pad thai—creamy and thick with peanut flavor and scrambled egg. The crispy pork belly was fried and laid in slices across the top. Pork belly has shown up on all sorts of menus in recent years, its popularity buoyed by the snout-to-tail movement. Most often, chefs showcase the fat-laden meat's potential for softness, but here it is fried firm, with just a little gooey fat on the edges. That firmness comes in handy as the pork chunks hold their own after soaking in the soup.
We also tried the pho, a lovely combination of clear beef broth and rice noodles, which benefited from many dashes of fish sauce, one of several condiments on a tray that accompanied the soup.
The puffy saffron vegetable crepe showcased a deft hand in the kitchen as the egg remained tender while doing the tough work of binding green beans, mushrooms, onions and asparagus. During a lunch visit, we had papaya salad topped with pork neck, tender strips of charred meat that played off the spicy-sweet notes of the dressing on the shredded papaya, and a carefully built, if awkward to eat, beef baguette sandwich.
For dinner, we had arrived early on a Saturday night to a mostly empty restaurant. As the dining room quickly filled during our meal, the servers maintained an admirable level of calm and efficiency. Service was consistent during our weekday lunch. I found it charming that both meals ended with a tiny, complimentary drink. The after-dinner shot was a bracing, yellow digestif; the after-lunch treat a single gulp of creamy coffee as sweet as a cordial. Also charming were the prices. Dinner entrées are generally $12 to $15, and nothing on the lunch menu costs more than $9.90.
Before dining at Bida Manda, I found a story Emily Kaiser penned last year for Food + Wine recounting a food-fueled trip when she fell heart-over-stomach in love with Laos. She concluded that the only place to try little-known Laotian food is Laos.
A meal at Bida Manda would change her mind.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Charming and hearty."