Lao. As in wow. As in pow. As in go right now.
My friends and I were weaned on Thai food. It wasn’t eaten with a silver spoon. Most meals were funded by youthful hustles; ticket scalping, pot dealing, baby-candy stealing, and other assorted skullduggery. Ill-gotten gains often wound up in the hands of Arthit and Suda, proprietors of the Thai House, our local go-to for Asian eats. Every week or two their restaurant became home. We would commandeer a large back table and hold court for hours – devouring off-menu nibbles and ball-busting – before launching ourselves into the evening minds alight and bellies on fire.
Arthit, who prefers to be called Otto, and Suda who prefers Sue, would pretend to shower our table with free Singha. As soon as one was slugged down, another would magically appear. When it came time to settle up, we’d pretend that the grotesquely large tips we left were not in exchange for the comp’ed beer. In turn, they’d feign gratefulness.
It was a circle jerk of good vibes. It was also all lies. Fake names, fake generosity, fake gratitude. Even the food was a lie. Not Thai at all. Som tam? Lao. Sticky rice and beef jerky? Lao. Larb? Lao. Otto, how could you?
I joke. I’m a joker.
Otto and Sue were from Thailand. Otto’s parents were from Laos and many of Thai House’s recipes were his mother’s. Not unusual. Fun fact: There are far more ethnic Lao living in Thailand than in Laos itself, and much of the Lao cuisine in Thailand has simply been rebranded Isan (or northeast Thai) food. The ‘thaiification’ of all things Lao in Thailand is a fascinating topic in itself, but this is a restaurant review. I think. Regardless, back in the day, it was far more financially sensible for Otto and Sue to market their resto as Thai House rather than Lao House, even if the latter has a far sweeter ring.
So, Sticky Rice. Orlando Eats’ colleague, Go-Kart Romeo, and I have now eaten at the casual Lao eatery on multiple occasions. Romeo definitely has a leg up on me in terms of perspective. He’s actually spent time in Laos cooking at local food markets and has eaten his way through most of southeast Asia. He brings valuable insight to the critical table. Me? A bit of snark. Wonder twin powers activate.
Sticky Rice is part of the sprawling urban food court that is Mills 50, sitting underneath Bikkuri sushi just east of Black Bean Deli and just west of Lac Viet on the northern side of E Colonial. Although not evident at first, there’s fairly ample parking in the back.
The interior is set up as a small food hall; communal tables, Sriracha bottles, rolls of paper towels, jars of handi-wipes. A colorful mural along one wall pays homage to the three-headed elephant on the former Laos monarchial flag. The crowd on most visits has been a mix of humans; old and young, fat and skinny, short and tall, mostly tattooed. You know, humany. There’s obvious food nerds like us, Lao families, groovy kids, an adventurous tourist or two. It’s a pretty laid-back scene.
When you walk in, make a beeline for the counter at the far end of the room, pick up a menu and just start rattling things off. Specials and desserts aside, we’ve tried everything. It’s all good. All affordable. On the last visit, two of us dramatically overindulged for $30. Tasty across the board, but with a caveat or two (keep reading).
Most folks will find the food at Sticky Rice familiar – as mentioned, much of it is what we’ve widely come to know as Thai. Shredded papaya salad, steak and chicken larb, beef jerky, and the restaurant’s namesake, sticky rice, are all mainstays of Thai menus, but distinctly Lao in origin. Sticky rice itself is the foundation of Lao cuisine. The Lao sometimes refer to themselves as the “children of sticky rice” and pull and dip the father-mother-grain into sauces and pair it with proteins. Think of it as a utensil you can eat. Like pita or injera.
The sticky rice ($3) at Sticky Rice is intended to accompany every meal. For us, it has. The oblong log of gummy comes with two dips; a wonderful semi-sweet relish of softened pig skin (jaew bong) and a bright lime chili sauce (jaew som).
Food is brought to your table on a tray on top of which individual dishes, soups aside, are served in paper boats. Our first boats carried fast friends of sticky rice; lemongrass beef jerky (seen loht, $5.50) and lemongrass pork sausages (sai oua, $5.50).
The beef jerky is a winner; simultaneously chewy and crisp, retaining a bit of interior bounce. I found myself spooning up the meat crumbs. I equally enjoyed fatty slices of pork sausage, some carrying a slight char. When eaten with sticky rice and one of the dips, look out.
Garlic chicken wings ($6) and pork tapioca dumplings (sakoo sai moo, $5) are also safe bets. Wings aren’t of the faddish KFC variety – they focus more on flavor (a deep curried garlic) than texture and, in this, they succeed. Dumplings are filled with sweet radish, minced pork, peanuts, cilantro, and dried chili. For the uninitiated, tapioca can be a tad rubberier than standard dumpling wraps, but it’s lovely nonetheless. We found each bite benefited from a quick nibble on the whole roasted dried chili that rode shotgun.
Nam khao, or crispy rice salad ($5), was our initial foray into Lao salad world. Cured pork, peanuts, grated coconut, scallions, cilantro and lime jumbled into a harmonious whole. A new taste for us and a moreish bit of textural heaven. Chicken larb (or laab, or whatever other phonetic approximation you choose) at $5 was super solid – as good as any we’ve had in the area. Made distinct by a heady dose of toasted rice powder and fresh mint. We count both of the above among our Sticky Rice faves.
Although based on similar prep and ingredients, we found steak larb ($7) and mushroom larb ($7) a bit muddled texturally and flavor wise. The rice powder in the mushrooms can get a touch gooey. Both dishes were good but were upstaged by opening acts. Not to say that we wouldn’t order either again, but if forced to choose, go chicken. We would. We will.
A fresh chili-of-many-names (bird’s eye, prik kee noo, piri piri) rides atop various larb dishes and is perfect for pecking at between bites. Larb is also accompanied by lettuce leaves which serve as wraps and have been invariably fresh and full of life on our visits.
Papaya salad (thum maak hoong, $6) arrives with crispy pork rinds and can be ordered from mild to Lao hot. Lao hot, please. I know it reeks of macho braggadocio, but my brothers and I were suckled on chili peppers. Yeah, I’m tough. No, I wasn’t crying at the end of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It was dry eyes. Dry eyes. Anywho: Lao hot papaya salad at Sticky Rice is a properly spicy flavor bomb; some real-deal in-country shit with a fermented crab base as funky as George Clinton. Color us delighted to see such unfiltered grub increasingly available on Orlando menus. A word of warning: it will not be to everyone’s tastes. Our palates took several minutes to acclimate before cheering.
Sticky Rice co-chef, Kevin Phanhvilay, told us that in the early days nearly half of all papaya salad orders were returned to the kitchen – too spicy, too fishy. But Sticky Rice stuck to its authenticity guns and Orlando’s Lao community caught wind. The salad now has a loyal following that at the very least includes local Lao and Orlando Eats.
Kapoon nam gai ($7) is a coconut curry soup with chicken, rice vermicelli, red cabbage, mint and cilantro. Tasty but pretty straightforward – not a lot to fault or rave about; a solid foundation for doctoring. Adding crushed roasted chili and the remainder of our lime chili dipping sauce took it from average-good to good.
A note to the meatless in our midst; the coconut curry soup can be ordered vegetarian. It, and the mushroom larb, are the only vegetarian options on the menu (and you must specify vegetarian when ordering to avoid fish sauce). There are also currently no seafood options at Sticky Rice. Laos is landlocked, but catfish is plentiful and it would be great to see the occasional catfish special (be it soup or salad). Portland’s Pok Pok does a charcoal roasted minced catfish laab that I would strangle a puppy for. If something similar were to appear on Sticky Rice’s menu, it’s ovah. They’d find us living in a van in the parking lot.
Final odds and ends: Adjacent to the counter there’s a fridge with three beers we enjoy; Beer Lao, Beer Lao Lager and Singha, and two beers we’d still drink; Chang and Sapporo. Who am I kidding? We drink all beer and enjoy it. Didn’t want to come off as easy. There’s also white gourd drinks and grass jelly. On most visits, sticky rice and dips are thrown in free when you order three small plates. They have a dessert or two that combo up ingredients like sweet purple rice, coconut, mango, etc. I’m certain we’ll get around to trying them. What else? Oh, there are bottles of yellow Three Mountain Sriracha (thank you).
And that, my friends, is that. Overall? Yum. Sticky Rice is a bit of an outlier in an Orlando fat with pan-asian fast casual restaurants. Few of them are as focused culinarily or distinctive flavorfully. None of them provide equal value. We’ve officially added Sticky Rice to our poorly guarded list of everyday faves – places we frequent for reliable, well priced grub, that we annoy the hell out of with our continued presence, and that our hungry spirits promise to haunt long after we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil. Fun!