Rice. It's an awesome thing. I've sampled rice dishes from many cuisines, and my recent encounter with nem khao puts it near the top of my favorite preparations. Nem khao is a Laotian dish, and Asia Café (4710 Market St.) in Chollas View does it very well: Rice is rolled into balls, fried, broken into pieces and tossed with scallions, herbs and a fermented pork sausage to make a deliciously crunchy appetizer. It's served with a wedge of raw cabbage, and the leaves can be used as a scoop for the nem khao, topped with fresh mint and cilantro.
Asia Café sits on the corner of Market and 47th streets, hidden behind an auto-repair shop. The buildings are cubes of painted concrete bricks, and the windows have bars on them, but Asia Café shouldn't be judged by its cover. Inside is a handful of tables in a clean and sparse dining area. The service is excellent and it does brisk business with takeout orders. I visited for lunch, which seems to be the best time for dining in. It closes at 6:30 p.m., so dinners have to be on the early side or takeout.
The nem khao is a must-try, but it's not on the menu, so be sure to ask for it. Since Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian cuisine influenced each other, there's a lot of overlap with dishes. I wanted to try some of the soup noodles, but a broiling day with no air conditioning made that a bad choice. We skipped over most of the familiar Thai and Vietnamese dishes, making an exception for the pad see-ew (stir-fried rice noodles with veggies and soy sauce), which was very good. I gravitated toward the papaya salad, which was done Lao-style with a slightly different sauce. The Thai version has an almost colorless dressing with a base of fish sauce and lime. With the Laotian version, the dressing was light brown, and I suspect the difference was tamarind. It was refreshingly crisp and spicy.
Between the hot day and the spicy papaya salad, I needed something cold to wash it all down. Iced coffee, aka Lao O-Lieng or café den da, did the trick. Served inky black and sweetened with simple syrup, it was sweet and bitter with notes of chicory. Moving from spicy and fresh to something more savory, there's the seen-nam-toke, a steak that's perfectly seared and served sliced with a pungent mixture of fish sauce and soy sauce for dipping. For steak done in a completely different way, there's the Laotian beef jerky. Cut into strips, dried and then fried with a sweet sticky sauce, it's chewy and goes really well with the papaya salad and the sticky rice.
If the nem khao ranks high on my list of favorite ways to do rice, then sticky rice is right below it. Asia Café does it right, and it's neither too dry nor too soggy. Go and get both, but make sure you save room for everything else.