Sweet Rice, Tacoma’s first Laotian restaurant, now open
Two things a diner should do on a first visit to newly opened Tacoma Laotian restaurant Sweet Rice: Dip and pluck.
Sweet Rice’s name nods to sweet sticky rice, a staple of Laotian cuisine. “In Thailand, the Thai eat a lot of their dishes with jasmine rice, but with us in Laos, our primary rice is sweet rice, the sticky rice you mold in your hand,” explained Sweet Rice co-owner Robert Saysana.
“We eat that with finger food, a lot of crispy fried, grilled foods that you can eat with the rice,” added Saysana. “We like dipping a lot. We like the sweet rice and we get a protein and then we dip it,” he said.
“Most of our food consists of a lot of mixtures, a lot of herbs and a lot of flavors,” he said. Laotian food is similar to Thai cuisine in that the harmony of Laotian cuisine borrows from the same symphony that comprises the Southeast Asia palate: sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter.
JEO SAUCES AT SWEET RICE TACOMA
Whether ordering the Lao sausage, the crispy chicken wings or the dried beef with a tease of sweet, be sure to ask for a sampling of Laotian jeo sauces for dredging.
There’s jeo som, a sweet, spicy and tangy sauce; jeo mak len, a spicy tomato sauce; and jeo bong, a Lao chili paste.
“The Lao sausage goes best with the jeo mak len,” advised Saysana.
“You pick up the sausage, then dip it in the sauce, then grab a piece of the sticky rice and pop it in your mouth. It’s delicious.”
Jeo mak lan – made with roasted tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers – is something like a spicy Lao marinara. The Lao sausage, threaded with herbs and carrying a tender bite, is made in house by one of Saysana’s aunts.
FAMILY STORY BEHIND SWEET RICE TACOMA
His aunt makes big batches of the sausages that are served a la carte or on the Mix Plate, a sampling of tastes of Lao street food (and also a must order at the restaurant).
Another aunt makes the restaurant’s cured pork served in the restaurant’s nam khao, crispy lettuce wraps, which are among the restaurant’s most popular dishes.
Nam khao skews sour, salty, bitter and a touch of sweet. The cured pork delivers a surprising shock of tang with red curry flavoring the sticky rice. Scoop up a portion of the rice-and-pork dish, pop it into a lettuce leaf and enjoy a full taste of Laos.
If you’ve never had Laotian food before, the Saysanas are the perfect flavor guides. “We are trying to preserve our culture and make sure it’s handed down because it’s in danger of being lost,” explained Saysana.
Saysana and his sister Elizabeth Hampton opened their first Sweet Rice restaurant in downtown Auburn two years ago. Robert’s wife, Aileen Saysana, and Robert and Elizabeth’s cousin, Diana SaysanaVongphet, also help run the restaurant.
Robert and Elizabeth are lifelong Tacomans who grew up in Northeast Tacoma and are Stadium High School graduates. When it came time to expand, Tacoma felt a natural fit for the growth of their restaurant.
The Tacoma-area family runs the Sweet Rice locations in Auburn and Tacoma, but their extended family operates similarly themed restaurants in the Dallas area.
“My family down in Dallas, they’ve opened eight kinds of these restaurants. They’re doing really well, so we were like, we’ll join in on the fun and open ours, especially if we can teach others about our culture. Everybody knows Thai food, but few people here know Lao food,” said Saysana.
THE OPENING OF SWEET RICE TACOMA
It’s the area’s first Laotian restaurant with a broad range of Lao cuisine, but Thai dishes diners will recognize also pepper the menu.
Sweet Rice’s Tacoma location opened October 23 in the space that formerly housed Takos Koreanos, which closed earlier this year.
The layout of the dining room remains similar to that of Takos Koreanos. Find a stylish restaurant decorated in pretty shades of green and white, with a fireplace anchoring the main dining area.
The dining room is expansive, but it’s not yet open for service. For now, the restaurant is serving take-out and to-go orders.
FIRST BITE LOOK AT THE MENU
On a first visit, try these:
MIX PLATE: Available in different configurations, we enjoyed the platter full of Lao street meats. There were light-and-crunchy fried chicken skins; plump, juicy chicken wings licked with a bit of heat and sweet; beef jerky with a pleasant tug of resistance and a sweet-salty marinade; and Lao sausage, threaded with herbs and tender textured. We dredged all of those through the selection of jeo sauces combined with scoops of sticky rice. $15.50, built for sharing. Be sure to ask what the mix plate comes with, because it is available in different configurations.
NAM KHAO: I can see why this is the most popular dish on the menu. Sticky rice is fried up with red curry, lime, fresh herbs and chunky wedges of cured pork made my Saysana’s aunt. The dish is licked with spicy-sweet flavors and a wallop of tang. The texture of the soft, sticky rice and the crispy, cool lettuce is epically satisfying. $10.50.
PAD LAO: Pad lao is a fried noodle and egg dish that’s similar to phad thai, but it comes topped with a stir fried egg omelet. The rice noodles are slippery with a sauce that’s more sour than sweet. $11.
KAO POON NOODLE: This is like Lao chicken noodle soup. Round noodles were sunk deep into a bowl field with a chili-spiked chicken broth suspending cabbage, carrots and other veggies. Order it Lao style and you can get it with chicken feet and blood cubes (they don’t always have the chicken feet and blood cubes available). $11. (Correction: I previously identified this dish as kao piak, but it is kao poon noodle).
ALSO ON THE MENU: Curries, noodle and fried rice dishes, both with Thai and Lao flavors and ingredients. There’s also larb, grilled meats and a nice array of Thai and Lao salads.
STREET EATS: Saysana says the Street Eats appetizer menu is a stellar first take on Lao food. He recommends the house Lao spicy sausage, fried chicken skins and the fried chicken wings.
DESSERT: It’s likely one of the most unusual desserts I’ve had so far this year – coconut milk and sticky rice are infused with pandan and served warm with cubed fresh mango and a sprinkle of sesame. The pandan adds a grassy sweetness to the sticky rice, which carries a satisfying elasticity perfect for desserts. $8.
MORE DESSERT: Macarons – both the traditional Parisian cookies and macaron ice cream sandwiches – come from Seattle’s Macadons. Flavors are tinged with Southeast Asian flourishes: lychee, pandan, ube, durian, Thai tea, Vietnamese coffee. But there’s also passionfruit, pistachio, salted caramel and strawberry.
SWEET RICE TACOMA
Where: 8425 S. Hosmer St., Tacoma; 253-507-5618
Order takeout directly from the restaurant here: https://olo.spoton.com/5f440cb09adef3dde82f2e4d
Delivery platforms: Find Sweet Rice on Grub Hub, Uber Eats, Seamless and Door Dash, among others. Sweet Rice Auburn: 4017 A St. S.E., Auburn; 253-333-6677
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