The opening of Sticky Rice Café is something of a triumph for Knoxville—no doubt even more so for the Sikarng family, who own and operate the restaurant, but this is certainly a moment for all serious eaters to celebrate. It’s not that the food is so very unusual, though it has its moments (and they are fantastic)—it is, instead, yet another jewel in Knoxville’s small but growing crown of culinary authenticity.
The cuisine here is Laotian, and the restaurant may be the first of its kind in these parts—at least by name. When you visit the café, you’ll notice that many of the dishes look and even taste familiar; that’s because they are. The cuisine of Southeast Asian countries, while certainly distinct, share some similarities, of course; but for a variety of reasons unrelated to a common appreciation for spice and cilantro, Laotian food is often lumped together with that of Thailand.
So, you may very well have had some Laotian meals and never even known it—Lao dishes mingle freely with those of Thailand in restaurants from Bangkok to Boise. But the Sikarng clan has changed that for us. So, thanks to them, you can enjoy your laab and sticky rice with a clear appreciation for this much underappreciated cuisine.
Sticky rice is the foundation of the Laotian diet. It’s also called sweet or glutinous rice (even though it has no gluten), and it gets seriously sticky when steamed. Because of that, the only practical way to eat it is to use your fingers. Meals at the café come with an attractive little basket of rice—don’t be scared, just open the basket, form a small ball of rice, and use it to scoop up some of your food. I suppose you could mix the rice into your entrée. But why deny yourself such a fun opportunity to experience some culinary authenticity, enhance your foodie cred, and at the same time relive one of the best things about being young—no utensils! The rice is chewy and substantial and will easily stay together long enough for you to dip it in some hot sauce or laab and eat it.
Laab, often called the national dish of Laos (and sometimes spelled larb or laap), makes for a fine introduction to Sticky Rice Café. You can order it with chicken, seafood, or beef, as I did. Thinly sliced beef soars to tasty heights when seasoned with toasted rice powder, scallions, cilantro, mint, lime juice, and chili, and the combination of flavors, complex and refreshing, nearly inspired me to raise my hands and give thanks. But the dish gets a serious surge of distinction from the inclusion of thin little slices of tripe. I know, I know—many of you will want to run screaming. But don’t! You can easily move it aside, but its inclusion gives the dish a remarkably satisfying texture and a lovely bump to the its beefy flavor. This is an extraordinarily edible experience that I guarantee will move you from the fake foodie poser column to the truly tremendous one.
If you’re inclined to tip-toe into this experience, you might enjoy the green curry pork belly. Flavor-wise, it’s a comfortable walk through your Thai memories with coconut milk and spicy green curry wrapping luxuriously around rich slices of pork and tofu; delicious and fragrant but not particularly adventurous. Despite the warning on the menu, my bowl came with but a mildly spicy personality and a pleasant, gradual heat that never made me uncomfortable. Keep in mind that I’m not a real fire-eater, according to my hot-sauce swilling compatriots, but if you are so inclined, you can easily increase the Scoville rating of your food by request or by manually doctoring it with the addition of a wicked-looking chili concoction available at each table.
Another dish that’s a breeze to enjoy is the appetizer of deep-fried chicken skin. If you like fried chicken, you’ll be in heaven eating this simple, crunchy, and satisfying snack, with or without a quick dunk in the accompanying bowl of hot sauce. The menu indicates that the skins are marinated in a house seasoning, but on my visit they weren’t so flavored; that’s not a criticism, per se, because I loved the simplicity of the indulgence.
Another simple but satisfying appetizer with a comparatively mild flavor profile is Laotian sausage. It looks like a brat and is served sliced on a lettuce leaf with some hot sauce for dipping. The aromatic link arrives flavored with ginger and garlic, but lemongrass dominates the profile. I took part of it home and found that I liked it even better later.
On the other hand, an appetizer of crispy rice with sour pork sausage was far from simple in a portion that was really enough for a lovely light lunch. Balls of sticky rice are deep-fried and broken apart, tossed with lime juice, scallions, cilantro, peanuts (do you detect a theme?), and thin slices of sour pork sausage. The flavor of the pork is bright and tangy and lends rays of lightness to the full-bodied texture and taste of the well-seasoned rice. The immediate impact of cilantro flavor might come across as overwhelming, but that fades quickly as the richer notes of the food emerge.
Desserts are not legion—right now you can try fried banana or opt for mango sticky rice, as I did. A straightforward mix of the ubiquitous rice molded into a cake, drenched in sweetened coconut milk, and topped with mango, the dish recalls fond childhood memories of piling bowls of rice with sugar and whole milk. The mango is really more of an accent to the sweetened rice, but it was delicious if not mind-blowing. But I suspect that dessert isn’t that much of a thing in Laos—and ultimately, who cares: It leaves you with more room to try a Laotian sandwich (not unlike a banh mi), or share a green papaya salad, or the highly regarded Lao beef jerky. The restaurant also serves pho along with Laotian soups like kow pek (rice noodles and chicken broth) and kow poon (a spicy vermicelli soup with curry and chicken).
The best thing about the café is that it’s family owned and operated. That may make the service a little relaxed at times, but in my experience the family members and employees have been friendly and hospitable enough to make up for any momentary delay in the arrival of my check. Furthermore, everyone at Sticky Rice is pretty cool with the question “How would you eat this?” The answer I’ve gotten on both times I asked it has been a nicely inviting variation on, “You can eat it whichever way you want, but at home we…”
Of course, what’s truly wonderful about family participation is that the cooking is done by folks who know what it’s all about: the recipes, many of them from Grandma. That’s worth shouting about.
Sticky Rice Café
120 Jack Dance St., 865-249-6273
Monday–Saturday: 10 a.m.–11 p.m.
Dennis Perkins' Home Palate is a tasty exploration of local options for eating out and eating well by way of restaurant reviews, features on fun or unusual foodstuffs, and interviews with local food purveyors and tastemakers. It’s a candid and personal look at what’s right (and sometimes what’s wrong) with eating in Knoxville and its environs. He is also the artistic director of the Knoxville Children’s Theatre, has directed and performed at the Actor’s Co-op and Black Box Theatre, and is a foodie par excellence.
Share this Post