Hidden gem Sticky Rice Cafe thrives in West Knoxville strip mall

Family-owned and operated eatery serves Laotian staples alongside modern delights

When you think of ‘mama’s home cooking,’ what springs to mind? Biscuits and gravy, perhaps? Maybe spaghetti and meatballs? How about chicken laab with sticky rice? That last dish may seem out of left field, but for Khan Sikarng, her mother’s chicken laab served with traditional sticky rice is one of her favorite dishes on the menu of her restaurant, Sticky Rice Cafe, located just off of Kingston Pike in West Hills at 120 Jack Dance St.

Khan opened Sticky Rice in May 2016 with only her hard-earned savings and the help of friends and family. With more than 20 years in the Knoxville restaurant scene under her belt, Khan decided that she finally was ready to share her family’s beloved Laotian cuisine with her adopted community. With her mother, Phet (belovedly known as Mama Pat), acting as executive chef and a smattering of immediate family members running the show in the front of house, Sticky Rice has made a mark on the local restaurant scene not just due to its excellent dishes and superb service, but also because of its unique-to-Knoxville origins.

Sticky Rice’s Laotian food is similar to the more-familiar cuisines of the Southeast Asian nation’s neighbors Vietnam and Thailand in that it also comprises spiced meats, bold vegetables and white rice. Otherwise, however, it likely is completely different from anything you have ever tasted.

“Laos food is very spice-forward, very savory,” Khan laughs as she muses about her mother’s innate ability to flavor her dishes so consistently, even without using a measuring device. Lemongrass, lime leaf, ginger and Thai peppers are present in most Laotian dishes, in contrast to sweeter Vietnamese flavors which result from the use of cinnamon and clove as primary spices.

Working hard as a family is not unfamiliar to Khan and her clan. Phet lived through the tragic destruction of Laos during the conflict in Vietnam. When Khan was just a baby, Phet tied her to her back with a set of old sheets and swam across the Mekong River to a refugee camp in Thailand. After years of living in multiple refugee camps, Khan’s father secured passage for the family to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they were sponsored as refugees by a local Baptist church.

Though Khan grew up in the United States, cooking with her mother kept her heritage intact and her love of Laotian cuisine close to her heart. “Laos people rarely open restaurants,” Khan shrugs, as we discuss what it’s like being the only Laotian restaurant in town. Most of us are familiar with Vietnamese pho (pronounced ‘fuh’) soup, Chinese egg rolls and Japanese sushi, which plenty of visitors come in and expect. But through Phet’s passion for family-style, home-cooked Laotian cuisine, we have the opportunity to experience an entirely new culture.

In Laos, food is much more than mere sustenance. Traditional cooking – in very, very large quantities – is essential to many facets of social life. Parties, weddings and even funerals can last for days and boast several-feet-high piles of Laotian-style egg rolls, which are filled with meat and dipped in a sweet, tangy fish sauce. Khan tells me that any party, no matter the occasion, will see an enormous pot of pho, savory and warm enough to mend a broken heart. And the dish no gathering can go without?

Served warm in a bamboo basket and eaten with your free hand, sticky rice is a simple yet sustaining staple made from glutinous rice with a naturally higher sugar content that makes it sticky when steamed. Khan took me into the kitchen to show me her mother’s rice pot, dented and dinged from every passage she’s made in her many decades on Earth, but still the only pot she uses to serve the entire restaurant. Even her steaming basket was handwoven in the family’s village in Laos, special-ordered and sent by a friend to preserve the traditional way of making the dish, called khao niew in Laotian.

Even though Phet is not fluent in English, she deserves major credit for how quickly she reads tickets and prepares orders for an entire house in a non-native tongue. Khan translates how she feels to work at Sticky Rice:

“Phet was very excited to open the restaurant. She’s always worked in restaurants and is accustomed to hard work. She is so happy that all of her children and grandchildren live nearby – and may work with her every day. It was hard to get started cooking for so many, as she’s used to cooking for 20-30 people. It was a challenge for her to learn to cook for 100 people or more, especially so quickly on the busy days. But she loves what she does, and she’ll probably never retire from cooking.” Khan laughs at the last statement, shaking her head and knowing her mother has far too much passion and energy to step away from the restaurant anytime soon.

There’s one item on the menu that stands in direct contrast to Sticky Rice’s traditional offerings: the pho-rito. Taking all of the meat and dry accoutrements that come with a bowl of pho and wrapping them up in a tidy flour package, the restaurant serves it with a cup of broth for dipping a la a French dip. It sounds like something you’d find only on the West Coast, but the item was crafted by Khan’s brother as a modern alternative to the soup, which is served scalding hot and is self-assembled – not an easy task if you’re looking for a quick handheld meal. Phet’s reaction when she first saw the pho-rito? “Yuck!” she said, as she scrunched her face in horror. Khan is passionate about innovation, though, and she regularly reminds her mother that they’re a modern restaurant trying to appeal to a variety of tastes.

After almost two years in business, Khan still feels like she’s just getting started. She’s basking in the joy of being surrounded by her friends and family, serving customers she’s known for decades offerings from her own restaurant and introducing Knoxvillians to the food she grew up eating. Looking around the dining area, adornments and artifacts reflect Khan’s pride in her Laotian heritage. Even though she feels like not enough people know about her home country and its cuisine, she shares her gratitude that she can serve them a piece of her homeland through her mother’s cooking. “When people come here, I want them to feel like family,” she says.

Ready to try Mama Pat’s home cooking for yourself? Sticky Rice Cafe is open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Go with a friend so you can order multiple items to share. Here is a recommended order of dishes that will have your taste buds psyched:

  • Start with an order of the fried egg rolls, and be sure to dip them liberally in the sauce provided. But don’t ask for mustard; that’s Chinese!
  • Each person should choose an entree: beef pho, chicken laab or stir-fried vegetables for a vegetarian option. Pro tip: Make sure to wash your hands prior to eating; no matter what you order, you’re going to use your hands.
  • Ask your waiter how to authentically eat sticky rice with your hands, and go for it. Remember: Almost no one in Laos uses chopsticks, and Phet didn’t encounter a fork until she arrived in the U.S. in 1976.
  • Treat yourself to a Laotian milk coffee or Thai tea for a caffeine kick and a sweet specialty to jumpstart the rest of your day.

Phet making sausage by hand in preparation for a traditional dish, sai guoage

Phet’s traditional rice pot that she uses to steam all of the rice served fresh daily.

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