What to get and not to get at Dara

    Diagonally across the intersection from Crepevine on Shattuck are one Thai restaurant and one Thai-Lao restaurant, right next to each other. We know that it’s pretty much impossible for us to get a pure Lao dish in America, given that we can’t really tell the difference between Lao and Thai names. Still, the three-lettered word addition on the sign has an alluring effect on us mini-globavores. So we choose Dara over Cha Am.

    Secluded high above street level with a red brick gradation ascending up to the door, Dara offers its patrons two seating choices: out in the garden curtained by a multitude of mini palm trees, bamboos, and kalanchoes, or indoor, surrounded by faux gilded statues, metal vases, and wall ornaments. There’s no music; except for the talking in the kitchen far back, the only sound you hear here is your own voice.

    The dinner menu at Dara has a list of house specialties, Lao finger foods (with familiar items like sai gauk, satay gai, noke todd, nam lao), various noodles and curries, and of course, pad thai for those who never order anything else when they go to Thai restaurants. The lunch menu is more compact and has no separation between Thai and Lao dishes. The foods range from really good, good, alright to eh-inducing, but the quick and gracious service is always the same. I ask our host if we pronounce the names correctly, he smiles and nods “of course”. I’m sure the “not” is hidden behind his big grin. 🙂

    Get: sticky rice roll with peeled shrimp, wrapped in moist rice paper. Although accompanied by a thick tamarind dip, the rolls are already robust with their supple grains coated in some sweet and salty sauce. Its solid and chewy texture makes you full for hours. This is xôi disguised in gỏi cuốn form, ~$9 for two fat long ones.

    Definitely get: mor din – stir fried glass noodle with mussel, salmon, fish cake, shrimp, squid, straw mushroom, cilantro, bell pepper. All sorts of goodies for about $13. I cannot understand why pad thai is more popular than mor din. (FYI, Dara also dishes out a better mor din than Little Plearn Thai Kitchen on south Shattuck.)

    Get with caution: kao gee ($8.95) – simply a block of baked sticky rice seasoned with anchovy fish sauce, fried shallot, green onion, a little bit of egg, and peanut sauce to spread. The rice has a light crisp on the surface, but the taste, however interesting, gets monotonic after a while.

    Get with caution: soub naw mai even if it’s on the House Specialties list (with kao gee). This is bamboo shoot (mai) salad with minced pork, spiced up by a generous dose of ground chili pepper, black pepper and mint. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s good at first, but then it’s too spicy for me, the bamboo shoot is refreshing at first, but then too soggy and not chewy enough. It’s good as a small side salad, but not as an $8.95 entree.

    Get: catfish curry noodle soup (lunch menu, $9.95). Don’t expect to see any fish under the rice noodles, it has all dissolved in the broth. This soup is as vibrant in colors as it is in taste: sour and hot play the two high keys. I like how the main ingredient, the fish, stands behind the scene.

    Definitely get: som tum gai yang (lunch menu, $9.95). What can go wrong with BBQ chicken (gai yang in Thai, or ping gai in Lao), simple white rice, and green papaya salad (som tum in Thai, tam mak hoong in Lao)? The portion is too small. Although I’m a meat lover, I think the mild som tum totally steals the lime light on this plate (pun intended :-P). Its crunchy strings, soaked in sugar and tangy lime juice, are fruit crack.

    Of the limited times we’ve been to Dara, the only disappointing thing we encounter is how the diners, however young, like to order nothing more than pad thai. The playing-safe mentality is stickier than sticky rice. Seeing how big the menu is at Dara, there is one thing you should NOT GET here: pad thai.

    Address: Dara Lao Thai Cuisine
    1549 Shattuck Ave
    Berkeley, CA 94709
    (510) 841-2002

    Other Thai-Lao restaurant in the vicinity:
    Champa Garden

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