Why the 'boat noodles' at this Houston Thai restaurant sell out super fast

Sao Lao in Garden Oaks hasn't been open long, but its beef and pig's blood soup already has a cult following.

Sao Lao's boat noodle soup, loaded with ribeye steak and pork balls, is a hearty meal for one.

Megha McSwain

In this day and age, when the camera eats first, it's no surprise that a restaurant can garner a cult following simply via social media fame. This has been the case for Sao Lao, a Thai restaurant in Garden Oaks-Oak Forest. It's been open just under a year, but is already a destination among Houstonians in-the-know for its boat noodle soup.

There's much to love about Sao Lao's menu, but if the boat noodles are what you're after, visiting early, right when the restaurant opens at 11 a.m. for lunch, is highly recommended. The dish is offered every day Sao Lao is open for business, but when the day's supply is up, it's tough luck for interested diners. "It takes a really long time to make, so when we run out, we run out," said Sao Lao owner Souli Phaduangdet.

The name Sao Lao, which literally translates to "girl Lao," is a playful reference to Phaduangdet, who is half-Thai, half-Lao. Before opening the restaurant in October 2021, she operated the Pho-jita food truck, which earned a loyal following in its own right. At Sao Lao, the menu is made up in part of food truck favorites, along with recipes from her northern Thailand-born mother.

The standalone restaurant, with its bright, white exterior, is visible from North Shepherd.

Megha McSwain

"This isn't your typical Thai restaurant," she admitted. "It is Thai, mixed with Lao." She explains that the neighboring countries of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam share similar ingredients, but incorporate them into dishes in different ways. Phaduangdet's boat noodle soup is a prime example.

"I had a love-hate relationship with this dish," she said, noting that it took her no less than seven years to master. "It was the perfect moment when it finally came out right."

The traditional Thai soup was sold out of boats among the floating markets in the canals of Thailand, earning it the name "boat noodles." In Phaduangdet's interpretation, beef broth is simmered with pig's blood overnight for 8 to 10 hours, producing a thick, rich base. Then she adds rice noodles, large cuts of ribeye steak and tender pork balls. The result is a Texas-sized bowl packed with intense flavor.

"The dish is so complex, it has 40 different ingredients," she said, describing it as sweet, sour, spicy and tangy, all at once. "It is like a mixture of pho, and canh chua, and bun bo hue."

Phaduangdet attributes Sao Lao's quick rise in popularity over the last eight months to the dish going viral on social media. The restaurant's Yelp page is flooded with positive boat noodle reviews, and Instagram posts garner excited comments from regulars who can't stop raving about it.

Sao Lao boasts an attractive dining room and a popular BYOB policy.

Megha McSwain

Diners return for much more than the boat noodles, though. Dishes like chicken basil, drunken noodles and Thai red curry from the Pho-jita food truck days are permanent fixtures on the menu. Sao Lao touts a popular BYOB policy too, allowing guests to bring their own beer or pop their own bottles of wine with a $5 corkage fee. The shop slings fresh-squeezed sugar cane juice and has a display of traditional Thai desserts and dried snacks, all of which Phaduangdet says she sources from vendors around town. "We are all about supporting small, local businesses here," she said.

Leading up to its one year milestone, more and more people are becoming aware of the small, cube-shaped restaurant with a bright, white exterior on North Shepherd. With its well-maintained dining room, sans televisions, Sao Lao is a reliable place to enjoy good food, good company, and great boat noodles without any distraction.

Find it: 5013 N Shepherd Dr, Houston, TX 77018; (832) 203-5920
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

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