Eating My Words: Snackboxe Bistro: Sticky rice, fish sauce, and political defiance

Every now and then, even while eating, people experience a coincidence too coincidental to be a coincidence. It’s called synchronicity and nobody has ever been able to explain it as more than a call to attention. Something of that nature occurred last Friday when dinner turned out to be a pointed commentary on current events.

Some friends and I decided to eat at a Laotian restaurant, Snackboxe Bistro (6035 Peachtree Road), located in Peachtree Plaza, just beyond the Land of Car Dealerships in Doraville. As soon as we entered, I was startled by a statement painted on one wall: “Laos is the kind of place that can easily capture your heart and not let go.” It was attributed to the recently deceased Anthony Bourdain. The quote reminded me of him, of course, but also that, contrary to Laos, the US is now “the kind of place that can easily capture your children and not let them go.” Sitting in a restaurant staffed by immigrants and likely American-born children of immigrants now feels literally like political defiance. To add to the synchronicity, the restaurant’s video screens erupted with the squishy, nostalgic 1985 anthem, “We Are the World.”

The cuisine of Laos is something of a political expression itself, beginning with the original migration from Southern China into the area that became Laos and, then, thanks to the French occupation and repartitioning of Southeast Asia, later became northern Thailand. Thus, some food you’ve presumed to be strictly Thai turns out to be much better described as Laotian. Ditto for certain dishes we associate with neighboring Vietnam.

Take for example, larb (or laap) — the spicy concoction of minced meat that you see on nearly every Thai menu. It is actually the signature dish of Laos, and Snackboxe offers five versions: salmon, tofu, beef, pork, and chicken. We tried the tender grilled beef, tossed with toasted rice flour and flakes of hot chilies. It slightly stings the tongue and floods the mouth with sour lime juice, a gentle wave of fresh mint, and a mildly funky dose of fish sauce. If you really want to turn up the heat, order the green papaya salad. This is a dish I love at Com, a Vietnamese restaurant on Buford Highway, where it is refreshingly tart, almost like an old-fashioned palate cleanser. At Snackboxe, it is like walking into an over-heated sauna. Expect to start sweating and drooling instantly. Once you’ve adjusted, the herbs, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and lime come forward. It’s delish.

About that fish sauce. My friends found the food generally “fishy.” I didn’t really have that experience except with one of the snacks we ordered — saku, little tapioca pearl dumplings. I don’t generally dig tapioca, and the overwhelming fish sauce made them extra-unappetizing. Weirdly, they are by all accounts a favorite of many. I also wasn’t fond of the skewered meatballs. They were strangely spongy and coated with a cloying sauce.
My favorite dish by far was the nam khao. It is Laos’ famous sticky rice formed into balls with coconut, and fried. Once crunchy, they are broken up and tossed with peanuts, onions, fermented pork and, of course, a very mild dose of fish sauce. The dish is also piled with lettuce leaves to wrap the rice. I could eat this every day of my life.

Technically, most of the dishes here are street food and thus quite inexpensive. The décor, incidentally, is great fun — a blend of fine art and campy frills. So, please, resist Trump, embrace diversity, and eat some nam khao today.