When someone mentions Laos the first thought that comes to mind is unlikely to be food, but I have to tell you eating (and drinking) in Luang Prabang is outstanding. From the ultra cheap meals at the markets (delicious) to the side of the road vendors selling sweets, BBQ and sandwiches, just try it, trust me you’ll be pleasantly surprised. There are also some fantastic bars, restaurants and cafe’s to spend an hour (or many, many more) in, run by great people with a passion for good food, good company and for Laos. I’ve whittled it down to a few of my favourite haunts and will be reviewing them over the coming days in no particular order. Well, OK to be frank this first one is my favourite by far but more on that in a moment.
525 Cocktails and Tapas is just a 5-10 minute walk from the centre of Luang Prabang and it is a walk that is well worth it. I discovered this little haven one evening while sitting on my hotel veranda, diagonally opposite and hearing the most fabulous old jazz standards playing through the still evening night (quite unexpected when often it’s loud Laos karaoke!). It was late and it had been a long day so I didn’t go to investigate that evening, a decision I would later regret (one evening there missed!). Instead I went the next night and many more nights after that.
525 Cocktails and Tapas is owned by Expat Brit Andrew and managed by his GM, James. The property itself has been lovingly renovated by Andrew, where he has created a garden bar, long bar and snug that would be at home in Sydney, London, New York or any city in the world. The list of spirits is long and impressive and that’s just what’s in the “big book”. If you like your spirits as I do, the selection of Tequila, Gin, Whiskey, you name it, is nothing short of sublime. However, the house cocktail and tapas menu is a thing of beauty. Along with the cool and layed back vibe, what Andrew and the 525 team have maintained, is the spirit of Laos in the cocktails, the food and the welcoming attitude of the entire team. Everything you eat is made fresh on premise daily and it’s well worth it. So try not to be too disappointed if something has run out – just go back earlier the next night! The outdoor garden space is open, airy and comfortable with the sound of jazz, outdoor fires (if it’s chilly) and the attentive team who all love a good conversation and greet you like a friend on your first visit but when you return a 2nd, 3rd…or maybe 11th time, pretty much like family. So onto the Cocktails and Tapas!
The cocktail menu is well thought out, creative and importantly, delicious (with happy hour from 5-7 pm daily for select cocktails). By far my personal favourite was the Pineapple Ginger Mojito however the New Old Fashioned was also spectacular and their Espresso Martini made with locally sustainable Saffron coffee was divine. Although I do have it on good authority that each and every cocktail is magnificent, With the Negroni and the ultimate G&T being crowd favourites. I think the reason for such well made cocktails is due to the fact that all of them have been lovingly mixed by two wonderful Laos bartenders Deuan and Khamdee, both of whom are fantastic to have a conversation with and both of whom very quickly understood that I have a lime obsession (or lemon as it’s known in Laos – yes, it can be confusing) and both made each of my Vodka soda’s perfectly packed with fresh lime. (Thanks guys, you’re awesome).
Now, let’s talk the Tapas menu. Feeling like a taste of home and a little comfort food? Give yourself a treat and try the Mac & Cheese. Two perfectly sized ramekins of gooey, carby goodness with a crunchy top baked to perfection. All tastes are catered for here. There are the hearty meat dishes for the Carnivores among us, seafood delicacies for the pescatarians and ample options for the vegetarians out there. One of my personal go to meals was a combination of the Cucumber and Pineapple Salad with either a Quesadilla, The sliders or the Aubergine Caviar which sits atop the most crunchy and delicious rice crackers I have ever tasted. Seriously moorish. In fact, I would like the recipe for those and the cucumber and pineapple salad please? I’ll have to beg Andrew and James for them on my next trip to Luang Prabang! Speaking of the sliders, be brave and try the buffalo. It took me until my final night when I was having farewell drinks with friends I had made (including James and Andrew) to try them at the behest of Andrew and he was right. Moist, delicious and not at all dry like some buffalo dishes can be.
To truly get an idea of what the food at 525 is about my advice would be to dive into one of the selection plates. It is a brilliant way to sample a number of their creative dishes. To get a bit more local flavour try the Eastern Explorer with prawn balls to die for, The Western Explorer that includes the sliders and Mac & Cheese, The Cocktail Canapes which has the delicious G&T Battered fish and chips and don’t go past the Sweet Tooth to end your meal (The lemon meringue tart was a personal favourite, but the brownies are also amazing).
What sets 525 Cocktails and Tapas apart from the crowd are the little touches. Gorgeous glassware, ambient lighting – particularly the Edison bulbs that line the long bar, great music both inside and in the garden, beautiful photography from the region scattered along the walls, the cucumber and mint water delivered to your table, the people who frequent it (I cannot tell you how many entertaining conversations I had around the bar with travellers from across the globe) and most importantly the welcoming hearts and minds of Andrew, James and their brilliant Laos team. Oh, and the fact that James gives the best hugs EVER! (If you’ve known him long enough).
Next time you find yourself in Luang Prabang and wanting a great night out surrounded by fantastic people do yourself a favour and swing by to see Andrew and the team. Just a short wander from the night markets or say 525 to any tuk tuk driver and you’ll be in cocktail and tapas heaven in a flash.
I know that when I next return to Luang Prabang, which hopefully will be sooner rather than later, I’ll drop my bags off at my hotel and my first evening will be spent with Andrew, James and the team at 525 Cocktails and Tapas I’ll make sure I give the gents plenty of warning though just to make sure that my favourite people are working and that the Cucumber and Pineapple salad are still on the menu. Oh, and that it could be a long night.
Special thanks to Andrew for sending me some pictures of the fantastic menu