Vientiane Palace does not do fancy. They don't do sycophantic. They just make some of the most delicious Asian food in Madison with little or no fanfare...and very affordable prices to match. I eat one meal out nearly every day and I find myself enjoying Vientiane Palace weekly. I think of it as Lao-Thai comfort food.
It's centrally located just off State Street and can accommodate everything from the wimpy to the daring palate. Each entrée can be ordered with between one and four stars which denote spiciness/heat. Now pay attention to the following because it is crucial: one star is mild, two stars is pretty spicy by Wisconsin standards, three stars is very spicy and four stars is HOT, very, very hot. If you're trying to impress your date, get up and go to the bathroom prior to ordering and tell your waitress that when you say, "Four stars, please," that you really mean two. Vientiane Palace is no place for heroics.
I have brought many friends visiting from out of town and I spend several months each year in California and none of us have found anywhere with a similar cuisine. I have one friend who, like me, grew up in town and ended up on the West Coast and one of the first meals he has upon returning to visit his folks is always at Vientiane Palace. The combination of cooking oils and seasonings seem unique, somehow.
My personal Vientiane Palace favorites include the Curried Squash (choose a meat or tofu ingredient), Vientiane Fried Rice (I order it with two stars and with extra chicken), the Spring Rolls (the dipping sauce is sweet and spicy and peanuty and delicious), and Noddles with Soy Sauce and broccoli (and, for me, with extra beef.) On the beverage side, I can recommend their Thai Iced Tea or Coffee and your personal choice from their nice collection of bottled Asian, European and local beers. The only dish I have not enjoyed at Vientiane Palace was the Pad Thai. It wasn't terrible, but what with Thai-only restaurants being a dime-a-dozen, there are bound to be better examples of it somewhere else in town.
Now, let's address the service. As a regular who has taken the time to get to know the proprietors and employees, many of whom are from Laos, I am not a totally impartial or objective source. However, based on my observations, I think many people used to the saccharin Minnesota-nice instant familiarity of today's retail and hospitality industries might go to a place like Vientiane Palace and mistaken the businesslike demeanor of hard-working former refugees for gruffness. I guess that's a fair impression, but I recommend people don't let that get in the way of their enjoyment of the very unique, delicious food, at good prices and be open to getting to know the staff better...over repeat visits.
I can also recommend carry-out. Vientiane Palace's food seems to travel better than most Asian food, but make sure to ask for a plastic bag to guard against leakage.
One note: if you're into more rarefied, possibly lighter Lao-Thai fare, you can try Lao Laan-Xang on Williamson or Atwood. I prefer Vientiane Palace-style Lao-Thai. I like food that meets me more than halfway.