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Free Range

Sticky Rice

Quirky regional chain appeals though the food hits and misses

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden

Dinner at Sticky Rice (1634 Aliceanna St., [443] 682-8243, prompts a riff on the late George Carlin’s “sentences that have never been said before” routine. Here’s mine: I have never used chopsticks to eat tater tots from a metal pail while listening to Supertramp.

As it turns out, however, this is exactly the allure of Sticky Rice, which takes the ordinary, even banal (tater tots, Supertramp) and gives it a funky twist. That the tots are wildly overpriced at $7 and the accompanying “world famous secret tater tot sauce” (according to menu hype) is a day-glo yellow mayonnaise concoction ends up meaning little in this quirky restaurant that prides itself, according to its web site, on being “family-oriented, fun, and unique” while maintaining a “charming atmosphere and bad attitude.”

Sticky Rice comes to Baltimore by way of Washington, D.C. and Richmond, where co-owners Jason Henry and John Yamashita began their concept in 1999, and their description of their restaurant feels right except for the bad attitude part, for which there’s little evidence. Early on a midweek evening, Sticky Rice is filled with more young couples with children than one usually spots in a Fells Point establishment, and servers are all smiles, pointing out the specials on their trays before depositing them on a small cluster of tables hiding behind a scrim of red beads. There’s a lovely carved bar with a good selection of drafts (including Heavy Seas’ Loose Cannon, Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, and Strongbow cider), and a less formal sushi bar toward the back of the space. Televisions and reproductions of Sticky Rice’s red and white logo show up here and there, and a painted mural of a koi splashes headlong down the stairs, catching the light of the copper ceiling and brightening the deep gray walls. The playlist ranges from classic to current, and it’s a comfortable place to hang out, for sure. But to eat, well, let’s just say Sticky Rice is a better place to drink.

Which is not to say there aren’t some gems on Sticky Rice’s eclectic Pan-Asian menu of noodles, salads, sandwiches, and sushi. Silky pot stickers ($7), plump with savory chicken tempered with ginger, are pure pleasure. Some dumplings get their flavor from frying, but even steamed, these are very good. And the salmon fritters ($8, a special), moist and dotted with fresh herbs, might make you forget your mom’s version. It’s also admirable that many menu items are vegan or vegetarian, including fresh spring rolls, lettuce wraps, and “dirty vegan” noodles, a combination of tofu, noodles, peanut coconut sauce, and mixed vegetables. And often what isn’t obviously meat- or dairy-free can be made so with a substitution of tofu or mock chicken, a welcome consideration.

It’s a bit strange, then, that other items on the menu show a lack of finesse or nuance, such as Mongolian beef noodles ($9 for the dinner portion), strips of beef tossed with broccoli, water chestnuts, and udon noodles, whose blaring one-note flavor screamed “heat” and little else. Even the heartiest palates at the table reached for the bucket of tots to cool the burn.

Sticky Rice also offers traditional sushi preparations as well as more than a dozen rolls with nontraditional ingredients such as goat cheese, jalapeños, and grilled pineapple, and equally non-traditional names (Godzirra, G.I. Joe, or Goochland, anyone?). Some of these, like Drawn-N-Buttered ($11.25), a combination of lump crab, scallions, fried shrimp, and cucumber accompanied by melted garlic butter for dipping, sound more intriguing than they actually are. Instead of richness, the result was simply bland, a critique that could also be leveled at the messy BLT roll ($5, a special), all salmon skin and little else, as well as the poki sashimi ($8.50). This last dish is more than easy on the eyes, with brilliant ruby cubes of tuna plated next to electric green seaweed salad, but oddly lacks any distinct flavor. This is a shame, because as at other small plate establishments, the cost of all these little plates adds up quickly, and before you know it you’ve spent $100 on beer, tots, and a bit of sushi (you could have spent it on wine and sake too, if they had been listed anywhere on the drinks menu).

And yet despite all this, Sticky Rice has its charm and the potential to draw folks in. Much of this comes from its gracious servers, smart, unpretentious, and abounding in common sense, who make you want the place to succeed despite its quirks. Drafts for $2-$7 and staying open until 2 a.m. seven nights a week doesn’t hurt—neither does the combination of chopsticks and tater tots.

Sticky Rice is open seven days a week for lunch, dinner, and late-night dining, and brunch on saturdays and sundays.

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