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What’s on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai

Not even an expropriation order from the city could keep Seng Luong and Jason Jiang down

By Caroline Aksich| Photography by Joshua Best
What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai

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Name: Lao Lao Bar Contact: 5 St. Joseph St., 647-948-8018, laolaobar.com, @laolaobar
Neighbourhood: Downtown Core Previously: Salvo Owners: Seng Luong and Jason Jiang (Sabai Sabai) Chef: Roj Piradechdamrongpan (Sabai Sabai) Accessibility: Fully accessible

Sabai Sabai fans, rejoice: Seng Luong and Jason Jiang (partners in business and in life) are back, this time with Lao Lao Bar. Sabai Sabai was often compared to Cheers, the type of place where the regulars knew one another, the owners were larger than life, the soundtrack was always on point and celebrities (Simu Liu, Michelle Yeoh) made occasional cameos. If Sabai Sabai was a sitcom, a sudden record scratch—in the form of a 90-day notice of expropriation from the city—threatened to cancel the beloved series. With little notice, the restaurant was set to become another casualty of the TTC’s Bloor-Yonge Station expansion. But the ever-pragmatic Luong was thinking of contingency plans.

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Luong (left) and Jiang

The two had already relocated Sabai Sabai once before. In 2016, a condo developer booted them from their original location at Yonge and Dundas. But, this time around, the timing couldn’t have been worse: the restaurant had just survived years of pandemic lockdowns, and things were finally picking up again. After a lot of thought, they decided to press pause on Toronto for a while. “After 10 years in hospitality, Jason and I needed a break, so we bought two tickets to Argentina,” says Luong. Right before their scheduled takeoff, the restaurateurs got a call from their real estate agent about the St. Joseph space. “This was the first location that really grabbed us—we’d been drooling over it since it was the Wickson Social,” says Jiang. So they decided to sign the lease—South America would have to wait. The Sabai Sabai phoenix, though, wouldn’t rise for a third time. Seng and Jason decided to take this opportunity to open a new restaurant, one that celebrated their shared Lao heritage. While Sabai Sabai offered northern Thai and some Lao food, this new spin-off doubles down on Laos.



The food

“At Sabai Sabai, we were slowly introducing Lao dishes to the menu, but we held back,” says Luong. “It didn’t seem like the right time,” adds Jiang. “Today, diners are more curious about food from all parts of the world, but the city doesn’t have any great Lao restaurants. So, if we were going to open a Lao restaurant, we wanted to do it properly, which meant authentic Lao food with the right music, vibes and an excellent bar program—our culture viewed through the lens of Toronto.”

For those unfamiliar with Lao food, Luong describes it as very similar to northern Thai food, but with a profile that veers away from the savoury-sweet (less coconut milk) and more toward tangy, umami and herbaceous flavours. “We’re a lush, landlocked country, so there are a lot of fresh vegetables and herbs eaten raw, and not much seafood. What we’re serving is pretty much what we grew up eating—the only difference is the spice level, which we’ve toned down a bit.”

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
For the papaya salad, they shred green papaya, chop long beans and tomatoes, toss it all in a sauce made from padaek (Lao fish sauce), shrimp and crab paste, chili and lime, and serve it with house-made pork rinds. The Lao version of this regional staple has a fishier funk (thanks to the padaek) than the Thai version. $16

 

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Lao Lao Bar
This fried papaya salad is pretty much the antithesis of a salad, more like a blooming onion—and we can get behind that. The papaya-carrot-watercress fritter is an entirely plant-based dish, and the dipping sauce is similar to the green papaya salad dressing, minus the fishy components. $16

 

Lao Lao Bar
Another option for plant-based eaters is the sakoo yat sai, shiitake-and-peanut-stuffed tapioca dumplings. Traditionally, these are made with pork, but Jiang and Luong wanted to have ample vegan options on the menu. The dumplings get their purple hue from butterfly pea flowers, and a sprinkling of deep-fried shallots and garlic adds crunch. $13

 

Lao Lao Bar
Nam khao is a popular crispy rice salad from Vientiane. First, rice croquettes (think Southeast Asian arancini) are made with shredded coconut, shallots and chilies. Then, once cool, the croquettes are crumbled and tossed with preserved pork and lime. The dish is eaten with your hands, lettuce wrap style. $23

 

Lao Lao Bar
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What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
“Laap is Laos’s national dish,” says Luong. “We’re planning to offer a number of different laaps. This one is made with tiger shrimp. We have duck laap on special right now, but we’ll have more varieties over time.” For this variation, the shrimp has been dry sautéed (sans oil) and then seasoned with lemongrass, galangal, makrut lime leaf and padaek. It’s then tossed with banana blossom, fresh shallots, coriander, green onion, mint, lime juice and roasted ground rice. This dish is also eaten as a lettuce wrap. $22

 

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Lao Lao Bar
Ping gai is a popular street food in Laos. First, chicken is marinated in a mix of lemongrass, galangal, coriander seeds and chili before it’s tossed on the grill. At Lao Lao Bar, it’s served with room-temperature rice noodles and cucumbers. The noodles get boiled and seasoned with soy, oyster sauce and sugar. They’re then left to cool before being tossed with green onion and cilantro. “This is pretty typical of how Lao food keeps herbs as fresh and unbruised as possible,” says Luong. $22

 

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
This week’s specials include sai kok, a sausage made from hand-cut pork belly spiced with lemongrass, galangal, makrut leaf and shallot. It’s served with sticky rice and three dipping sauces, including jeow bong, a delicious, sweet-and-savoury sun-dried chili paste. $20

 

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
A good-looking spread
The drinks

The drink card is tight but thoughtful. Everything on it has been chosen to complement the food or to amplify Lao cuisine’s penchant for fresh herbs and warm spices. “It’s all very crushable,” says Tommy Kelly, the manager behind the beverage list. “Spicy food needs drinks that refresh the palate, but we also wanted drinks that could be enjoyed on their own.”

While the cocktails are mostly riffs on the classics, the wine list (with 20 or so bottles on rotation) is far from standard. Guests can expect rare indigenous grape varietals, natural wines and exciting reds like a Chilean País served cold and a Lambrusco from Emilia-Romagna, Italy. The beer selection, meanwhile, is two bottles long: Tiger and Far Yeast Brewing’s Tokyo White Saison.

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
The Golden Triangle (named after the area where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, separated by the Mekong River) is a perfectly balanced cocktail built around just three ingredients: pear soju, Amaro Nonino and freshly squeezed pomelo juice. $18

 

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Lao Lao Bar
Even classic cocktails like this margarita get a twist at Lao Lao Bar. The tequila-based bracer gets a herbaceous glow-up thanks to some tom ka simple syrup (infused with galangal ginger, lime leaf, classic ginger and lemongrass). $16

 

Lao Lao Bar
Thum Jok!! (which means “cheers” in Lao) is the perfect sipper for someone who likes to feign healthfulness while still indulging—seriously, it tastes like a Greenhouse juice that went on a bender (in a good way). The drink blends Dillon’s gin with cold-pressed celery and Thai basil juice. A bit of sweetness is then added in the form of tom ka simple syrup. $17

 

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
The Tommy Ka-llins (a play on, you guessed it, a Tom Collins) is similar to the OG version, but the vodka has been subbed for gin and, instead of sugar, it uses tom ka simple syrup. $15

 

Lao Lao Bar
The making of a Vang Vieng Lagoon, named after a town famous for its aquamarine lagoons and river-tubing bar crawls. This New Age daiquiri combines coconut rum, lemon juice, pineapple simple syrup and star anise bitters. $17

 

Lao Lao Bar
Lost in Lao may be the bar’s most dangerous cocktail. These coups—which contain a combination of Select Aperitivo, vodka, orange curaçao, and calamansi and lemon juices—go down all too easy. $19

 

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Bar manager Tommy Kelly puts the finishing touches on a cocktail
The space

The 80-seat space designed by Truease Studio looks to Laos for inspiration: a hand-painted column, Southeast Asian antiques and a bar festooned with marigold, a flower often used in devotional offerings at Lao temples. “You could call the bar our temple,” jokes Jiang. The historic 1905 cathedral windows lend a further hallowed quality to the bar area, with multicoloured booze bottles acting as ersatz stained glass. The room’s dark colour palette (puce walls, walnut and green granite tables) is warmed by the abundant use of plant-derived materials: wood, jute, reeds, grass, bamboo and living greenery, including two seven-foot-tall trees.

The 110-seat restaurant is divided into three spaces: the main dining room, a 14-seat private dining room and a 25-seat room that they’ve nicknamed Down Lao. Come spring, a sprawling streetside patio will be added.

Lao Lao Bar
Lao Lao Bar
What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Lao Lao Bar
What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Lao Lao Bar
What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
Here’s the private dining room. The lamp in the corner is made from Lao bamboo traps that Jiang and Luong brought back in their suitcase from a trip to Luang Prabang, the royal capital of the country until 1975 Photo by Joshua Best

 

What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai
This room has been dubbed Down Lao
What's on the menu at Lao Lao Bar, a new restaurant and cocktail lounge from the owners of Sabai Sabai

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