We sat at the table, laughing. We were eating tater tots with chopsticks. That's the kind of place Sticky Rice is—a little quirky and most definitely fun. Sure, you could use forks or fingers to nab the tots, but that wouldn't be the same.
The bucket of golden nuggets, enough to share with a large group, comes with a "secret" sauce that tastes a lot like a spicy Thousand Island dressing. It suited the crispy tots just fine.
Make no mistake. This is still a pan-Asian restaurant with starters like pot stickers and edamame, noodle bowls, and a variety of sushi and sashimi. The restaurant shows its playfulness with rolls with names like Godzirra (shrimp), 2,000 Leagues (octopus), and Dirty South (sweet potato).
But it's not just the names that are appealing, so are the preparations. Our Billy Goat's Gruff showcased thin slivers of yellowtail wrapped around goat cheese that were broiled and served with a citrusy ponzu sauce. The tart cheese introduced an exciting personality to the mild fish. The vegetarian G.I. Jane showed its fierceness with cucumbers and scallions meshed with cream cheese and rolled in crushed wasabi peas. Both were displayed on a pristine white plate with a lovely garnish of fresh ginger shaped like a delicate pink rose and wasabi fashioned into a leaf.
We were impressed with the freshness of the ingredients in all the dishes. The do-it-yourself lettuce wraps included sturdy romaine leaves as vehicles for the potpourri of stir-fried chicken (or you can opt for tofu), shiitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, broccoli, carrots, and other veggies. It's a hands-on appetizer that doesn't require any skill other than trying to get the rolled-up bundle to your mouth without spilling the contents.
Of course, a few drippings wouldn't necessarily matter in this place. It's a clean but seasoned setting befitting its former occupant, Friends bar, and still has a tavern look minus the pool table in the back—not your usual Asian venue. The bare wood tables are nicked with memories, and the original tin ceiling and retro black-and-white linoleum recall the past.
The handsome wood bar—which stretches from the front to the rear of the narrow dining room—is a focal point. It has a beautiful, intricately carved wood mantle that is reminiscent of a pagoda and houses a sushi chef at one end and the bartender at the other. Red lanterns cast a sexy glow.
The clientele is mixed. You're just as apt to share space with neighborhood residents as you are with skate rats or bankers.
The staff is laid-back and helpful. Our server, wearing jeans, a worn T-shirt, and tattoos, didn't hesitate to sidle up next to his charges, whether in the seat next to them or on a banquette cushion. He was near enough that we could smell his cigarette breath. (He's what Seinfeld would call a "close-talker.")
But he was well-versed in the menu, pointing out various dishes including his favorites. We were in good hands.
Baltimore's Sticky Rice is the third restaurant in a concept that was started in Richmond, VA, in 1999 by John Yamashita and Jason Henry. Another restaurant opened in D.C., and now several partners are involved.
"They thought Baltimore would be a good next stop," said Sticky Rice partner Ronnie Pasztor, who lives here and operates the Fells Point location that opened last September. When we asked him if the restaurant was a franchise, he said, "No, it's a closely held company."
Whatever its corporate status, the restaurants have similar menus. In fact, Michael Bates, the kitchen manager at the Baltimore Sticky Rice and also a trained chef, told us the night we visited that he is working there because he had eaten at the Richmond location and was impressed with the fare. He had come out of the kitchen after the dinner rush to chat with guests that night. He had no idea who we were.
This personal touch is reflected in the food. Our hefty noodle bowls were chock full of goodies. The Mongolian beef was laden with slices of tender marinated beef with broccoli, snow peas, onions, water chestnuts, and carrots in a spicy brown sauce with shavings of napa cabbage on top.
A choice of noodles is offered with the bowl dishes. We followed a menu recommendation for udon noodles and liked how the thick spaghetti-like strands twined well with the other ingredients. We also had a Szechuan shrimp bowl with jumbo tempura-fried shrimp scattered among the veggies in a nondescript sauce. (Bottles of sriracha—Vietnamese hot sauce—are on the table if you want to turn up the heat.) For this dish, we chose sticky rice (after all, we were in Sticky Rice) as our starch.
Other noodle dishes include chicken sesame, dirty vegan (tofu tossed with a peanut coconut sauce), curry fried rice, and a veggie tofu medley. For many of its offerings, the menu notes whether a dish is vegetarian or a vegan option, including appetizers like Jolly Green Wontons and spring rolls and salads like cold soba salad in a cilantro vinaigrette or a teriyaki salad with options for tofu, chicken, or tuna.
The restaurant is now open for lunch. But whatever time of day you're there, you can get sandwiches ranging from a crab cake with spicy caper aioli sauce and tuna steak with pineapple salsa to barbecue pork with wasabi aioli and Asian slaw. The Tokyo burger features a teriyaki-glazed patty topped with grilled pineapple.
Tempura takes on a whole new meaning here with dessert. It's amazing what can be batter-dipped and deep-fried, like cheesecake, for instance. The finished product gets more decadent with dollops of chocolate sauce. And, the best part, we found ourselves really liking this surprisingly good dessert with its crunchy coating and creamy interior. Two tempura-fried bananas were also a nice finish, especially with a scoop of sweet-peppery ginger ice cream on the side.
Sticky Rice seems to fit right into Fells Point's mellow vibe with its casual décor, carefully prepared food, and congenial staff.