When Sticky Rice opened in Wake Forest last November, all I could think of at first were reasons not to review it.
For one thing, the menu is pan-Asian, an eclectic grab bag running the gamut from pho to sushi to General Tso’s chicken. Experience has taught me that the old saying “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” is apt, more often than not, when a restaurant tries to be all things to all people.
Then there’s the location, in – did I say Wake Forest? Make that the outskirts of Wake Forest, in a little strip mall tucked in among a cluster of big box stores and national chain restaurants. What are the odds, I thought, that I’d be able to tell people this place is worth a drive?
But then, as I was looking at the menu on the restaurant’s website, I spotted the words “Laos sausage.” And I knew I had to check it out.
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Apart from the excellent Bida Manda in downtown Raleigh, Laotian food is practically nonexistent in these parts. I don’t even recall seeing a Laotian dish on a pan-Asian menu, though the cuisines of neighboring Thailand and Vietnam are always well-represented. Plus, I’m a sucker for new and unusual taste experiences.
And that’s just what Sticky Rice delivers: finger-size sausages of coarsely ground pork seasoned with garlic, herbs and fish sauce in a snappy casing, bias-cut into bite-size pieces and pan-seared. You can find them under the Appetizers heading, where they’re listed at a bargain $4.98, including a sweet chili dipping sauce.
But I strongly recommend letting your eye wander over to the separate section labeled Sticky Rice & Papaya Salad Combo, where Lao sausage is one of the options for $10.98. (The other choices are fried chicken wings and flank steak.) The extra 6 bucks gets you a bamboo steamer basket of sticky rice and a generous mound of papaya salad that rivals any you’ll find in a Thai restaurant (where it’s known as som tam, though the salad originated in Laos).
It should come as no surprise, then, that owner/chef Jay Vong is a native of Laos. Vong grew up Buffalo, N.Y., before moving to the Triangle, where he has operated a popular catering business in RTP for the past six years. Vong’s sister, Sandy, moved here last year from Buffalo to help run the restaurant. Jay does most of the cooking, while Sandy helps in the kitchen with a few specialties of her own and runs the front of the house – often single-handedly.
When exploring Sticky Rice’s Asia-spanning menu, I’ve found “the closer to Laos, the better” to be a good general rule. Thai curries are true to form, loaded with bright fresh vegetables, bamboo shoots and the protein of your choice (veggies and tofu, chicken, beef or jumbo shrimp) in a tropically fragrant coconut broth.
Laos’ neighbor to the east makes an even better showing. Fans of Vietnamese cuisine will recognize a dish labeled “Vietnamese street noodles” as a winning take on that country’s vermicelli dishes: juicy morsels of lemongrass-marinated chicken and crispy spring rolls on a bed of thin noodles, shredded lettuce, cucumber and carrot. Pho is made from beef and bones that are simmered for six hours or more, and you can tell from the fat-slicked, deeply beefy broth. Be advised that, true to pho shop tradition, the “small” bowl is more than ample for most appetites.
The same caution about portion size applies to a meal-in-a-bowl wonton soup, which serves up house-made shrimp- and pork-filled wontons, thin egg noodles, bok choy and petals of chicken breast in a translucent chicken broth spangled with chopped cilantro, scallions and dried shallots. If I were to quibble (and I suppose that’s what I’m paid to do), I’d note that the only off-key note in this savory chorus is bland chicken.
Venture into Japan and you risk stumbling onto the likes of tempura shrimp and veggies – which first impresses you with its lavish portion (three jumbo shrimp and a plateful of veggies ranging from asparagus spear to sweet potato), then lets you down with a so-so batter. The modest sushi offering is likewise of middling quality – and priced accordingly, with most specialty rolls going for $7.
Hatsu fried rice, on the other hand, is a keeper – in more ways than one. A jalapeño-amped riff on Japanese fried rice, the dish is a carryover of a best-selling dish served at Hatsu Sushi, the Japanese restaurant that Vong previously owned in this space.
Side excursions into territories with no specific national borders can also be rewarding. Chicken lettuce wraps, a generically Asian dish first popularized by the P.F. Chang’s chain, gets a first-rate rendering here. Same goes for fried tofu, impossibly light cubes encased in a delicate golden crust, served with a peanut-sprinkled sweet chili sauce for dipping. Both make ample starters for two at prices ($6.98 for the wraps, $3.98 for the tofu) that are a downright steal.
If you think you’ve picked up on a recurring theme here, you’re right: The most expensive items on the menu (jumbo shrimp entrees) are $12.98, and chances are you’ll be taking a doggie bag home.
Plan on sharing dessert, too. Order sticky rice with mango, and you’ll score a whole, perfectly ripe mango (cut into manageable slices) and an ample mound of sticky rice glazed with salty-sweet coconut milk sauce and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. And you’ll smile with contentment, and the knowledge that you’ve saved more than enough money to pay for the drive to Wake Forest.
927 Durham Road, Suite 107, Wake Forest
Atmosphere: cheery strip mall Asian on a shoestring budget
Noise level: low
Service: welcoming and attentive
Recommended: sticky rice and papaya salad combo, chicken lettuce wraps, Vietnamese street noodles, green curry, Hatsu fried rice, sticky rice with mango
Open: Lunch Monday-Saturday, dinner nightly
Other: no alcohol (beer and wine license pending); accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; parking in lot.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.