In an episode of Ugly Delicious – David Chang's gastronomic travelogue on Netflix – noted Chinese-food expert Fuchsia Dunlop talks about how it took her years of eating (and not relishing) some of the more palate-jarring dishes in China to finally enjoy them. The idea of "if you can't beat it, eat it again and again and again until your taste buds succumb" was a notion that ran through my mind in each of my visits to Sticky Rice.
Within the spectrum of flavors at the city's sole Laotian restaurant, I couldn't seem to get past the funky, fermented, fishy quintessence of thum maak thang. The undeniable bracing quality to this spicy cucumber salad ($3.50) suited me just fine, but the addition of fermented crab, crab paste and shrimp paste stopped me in mid-chew the first time I tried it. Henry Moso, Laotian chef and owner of Kabooki Sushi, told me that what he loves most about Sticky Rice is the fact that they're not shy about using fermented items in their dishes (or using whole Thai red and green chilies). The flavors provide him a sense of comfort and a culinary remembrance of things past. So the next time I ordered the cucumber salad, I tried intellectualizing my palate's aversion to the dish, replaying Dunlop's and Moso's words in my head until I got a few more bites in than the previous time. Dunlopian progress, I thought to myself.
By the way, nothing else here quite matches the cucumber salad's intense umaminess, though the papaya salad ($4.50) makes a valiant foray. What of all this salad talk, you ask? Well, we tend to order everything off the menu when we visit. The plates are small (this is "street food," after all) and ordering everything will cost you around $65. Plus it's a fine way to orient oneself with the tastes of Laos. Some are familiar – sweet, spicy, sticky chicken wings ($5) for example, or meatballs on a skewer ($4). There's a calming chicken noodle soup ($5.50) served with an addicting garlic-chili oil, and who can resist delicately crisp fried spring rolls ($3) filled with pork?
But Lao meals invariably start with sticky rice ($2). Here it's served in a cellophane wrap (not a banana leaf) with the idea being to take a little in one hand and eat it along with items you grab with your other hand. Items like lemongrass jerky ($5), which is fashioned from lean beef coated in oyster sauce and sugar, then dried and fried. Or cut ovals of lemongrass pork sausage ($4.50) that beg for a smear of jaew bong, a thick chili paste made from dried galangal, garlic, shallots, brown sugar, shrimp paste and pork skin. Some enjoy eating their sticky rice with pork tapioca dumplings ($4.50), but those sweet balls stand on their own.
There's crispy rice ($4.50) blended with cured pork sausage and textured with peanuts and grated coconut. It's served with lettuce wraps, but you'd do well to stuff the red leaves with chicken laab ($4.50) laced with red hots instead.
Naturally, we ended things with more sticky rice: one topped with mango ($3.50) and shredded coconut, and the other – a purple rice – topped with coconut gelato ($3.50). Both are served inside hollowed-out bamboo and, unlike that cucumber salad, neither will take years to fully enjoy. [email protected]