My dining companion and I had wandered in from a rainy weekend day to this modest strip mall joint in Doraville. It is a well-lit, very clean space full of long tables for sharing, but nothing to write home about in the interior decoration department. We’d each picked a few dishes off the flat-screen menu hanging above the register without paying much attention to what the other one ordered. Neither of us was really expecting much. We wanted a couple of bottles of Beerlao and a place to stretch out and talk over lunch. Our plates arrived one by one, as they were ready, while we talked. It was in this casual, relaxed atmosphere that I reached over to a plate of golden brown grains while thinking, “Oh, I should try the fried rice.”
I could not have been more wrong.
The rice on that plate had definitely been fried, but it was definitely not fried rice, the wok-cooked dish so familiar throughout Asia. Though it might superficially resemble a Cantonese dish from China, nam khao is a distinctly Lao dish prepared in an entirely different manner. For nam khao, jasmine rice is seasoned with coconut milk and formed into balls. The rice balls are deep fried until the exterior is a deep, crunchy brown. When broken apart, this technique creates a variety of textures: the crackly-crisp exterior rice mixed together with the tender rice inside.
At Snackboxe Bistro, nam khao is a revelation layered with slivers of salty, sour pork, scallions, red onion and peanuts. It is fragrant and deeply flavored. The competing textures are as compelling as a paella laden with socarrat. Take a bite with one of the crispy chiles served on the side, and it is a fiery dish. Wrap up a handful with a leaf of romaine and a stem of cilantro, and it transforms into a cool, calming one.
These are small differences in technique, almost invisible by the time the plate reached my table, but they made all the difference. This shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. One of the main reasons Lao food is less known in the United States is a matter of small differences. Laos is a country neighbored by Thailand and Vietnam, two countries that have long, thriving culinary reputations in the U.S. As it happens, Thai food happens to have a lot in common with Lao food, though the differences are quite distinct.
Thai food’s relative popularity in the States has created a certain conundrum for potential Lao restaurateurs. I’ve never seen it summed up better than in James Syhabout’s cookbook “Hawker Fare”: “Do you take a chance on Americans looking up Lao food in the Yellow Pages and finding you? Or do you call it Thai? Cook those sugary curries and orange phat Thais, and maybe mix in a few Lao dishes, tame versions of laap and papaya salad, and say it’s all Thai?”
It is to the credit of Vanh Sengaphone and Thip Athakhanh, the married owners of Snackboxe Bistro, that they have taken a risk and opened an unabashed and excellent Lao restaurant here on the perimeter of Atlanta. They’ve built a reliably friendly staff that I’ve watched, over the course of several recent meals, walk many newcomers through the distinctions of the cuisine. In fact, I’ve been one of them.
Though I like to think of myself as a longtime admirer of Lao food, the menu at Snackboxe Bistro includes several dishes new to me. That includes mok pha, whitefish steamed with herbs inside a banana leaf. Just as I was beginning to open up the banana leaves, Athakhanh dropped by to say, “You know, you really should be eating that with sticky rice.” She disappeared into the kitchen and came back with a little foil packet full of it. She was right. Sticky rice is the perfect vehicle for absorbing the succulent marinade, redolent of dill and lemongrass, that accompanies the fish. Perhaps I was spotted as a critic, but I’ve seen the staff here regularly pay this kind of friendly attention to detail with customers, over and beyond the expectations of counter service.
Whether you’re familiar or not, the menu offers plenty of pleasure. The papaya salad is funky and rich with fish sauce without being over-the-top salty. Lao sausage is packed with lemongrass and porky flavor, though I wish the casing had more snap. Don’t be fooled by the dish called shrimp ceviche on the menu; the plate that arrives will be silky, funky and spicy as anything from Laos.
A bowl of khao poon, a porky rice noodle soup made rich with red curry, might be the single-most filling item on the menu.
If you’re with friends, maybe it is best to just order a handful of dishes (almost everything on the menu is $8 or less), including the sticky, fried beef jerky, the addictive, acidic chicken larb made with homemade rice powder, papaya salad, sticky rice, and the trio of jeow (sauces) for dipping. The jeow bong, in particular, brings a deep, caramelized chile-packed punch. Afterward, you should ask for a cup of nam van, an iced, sweetened coconut milk concoction loaded with little jellies, fruit and corn. It’ll cool off any lingering burn.
In recent weeks, I’ve been excited to see the kitchen continue to experiment, offering weekly specials like crispy, shell-on shrimp and fried lemongrass quail. I look forward to watching this restaurant’s menu grow, though I think I’ll always be having a plate of nam khao.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-6 p.m. Sundays. 6035 Peachtree Road, Doraville. 770-417-8082, snackboxebistro.com.
Recommended dishes: Nam khao, papaya salad, khao poon, chicken larb, nam van.