Sticky rice is the heart and soul of Laotian cuisine.
On a steamy Saturday summer night, we park the car in a lot near the railroad tracks at 3014 Southwest Blvd., and I ask Anourom Thomson, chef and owner of Anousone’s Mobile Cuisine, to cook for me, my husband and two friends.
While Thomson gets our meal started, we sit at folding tables under a portable tent strung with lights and sip from Styrofoam cups containing mint tea and sweet Laotian iced coffee. From the next-door liquor store, we have bought cool cans of Boulevard’s Ginger Lemon Radler.
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Thomson soon emerges from the kitchen inside his 35-foot 1953 Spartan Aircraft Trailer Coach carrying the centerpiece of our dinner on a large, white, family-style platter. In the middle are strips of grilled chicken breast, crispy pork belly and rare top-sirloin beef ($13 per person).
The platter also includes four plastic sandwich bags containing sticky rice molded into cylinders. Thomson instructs us to break off bits of the rice and dip them into one of three sauces: a mild roasted tomato, a zesty roasted jalapeno-citrus and a spicy Thai chili fish that’s based on “crying tiger” sauce.
“We eat with our fingers and use the rice to mop up the sauce,” he says.
Monks eat sticky rice because it keeps them full longer than white rice. Sticky rice is an essential part of every Laotian meal.
Cooks soak the short-grain glutinous rice (which, paradoxically, is gluten-free) for a minimum of three hours but preferably overnight. The grains, which have a low amylose content, are steamed for about 20 minutes in a bamboo steamer. True to its descriptive name, the finished product holds together and can be molded into single-serving hunks.
For special occasions such as weddings, Thomson serves the rice in woven straw baskets given to him by his mother.
“The difference between Lao food (and Thai food) is we’re a very poor country, so sticky rice is the main part of our meal,” says Thomson, 43, who fled his homeland and arrived in the United States as a refugee when he was 6 years old.
Laotian cuisine has similarities to its Thai neighbor, and in fact, many local Thai restaurants are run by Laotians. But Thai is more upscale, while Laotian food is “more country fare,” Thomson says.
“We eat (sticky rice) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Everything else is a side dish. It’s a finger food. You eat (it) with your hands. The men early in the morning would pick up a rice basket and pack up their meal and take it to work in the fields.”
Thomson bought the mobile kitchen, originally known as Red Wattle, from his brother-in-law, the Farmhouse chef Michael Foust, and rechristened it Anousone’s (pronounced ah-new-sone’s). The name is a tribute to his brother, who was a year older and died as a child.
The trailer was a centerpiece of Little Piggy KC, an idea conceived by Foust as a hub for food trucks that opened in early 2016. But unexpected delays stymied the concept. To reinvigorate the hub, Foust continues to work on beefing up the lot’s amenities.
Thomson debuted Anousone’s menu at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival in June. In the first week of July, the trailer was moved back to Little Piggy KC, and Thomson has reinstated regular hours.
“I have a vision and a dream to be persistent and consistent with things. I’m going to keep the ball rolling,” Thomson vows, adding he will be open six days a week from 11 a.m. until late into the night.
While the focus of a Laotian meal is on sticky rice, our meal is accompanied by a flotilla of red-and-white paper boats: One contains a shredded green papaya salad with bits of tomato, fermented fish and plenty of fire from Thai green chilies ($8). Another has a crunchy, vinegary long bean salad ($8). Another has cucumber and edamame beans tossed with a sesame, soy and citrus glaze ($7).
There’s also fall-off-the-bone-tender St. Louis-style pork spareribs cooked Filipino style, with adobo and coconut milk, onion and pepper, served over another mound of sticky rice ($13). There are two boats of steamed buns — fat, fluffy disks the size of a hockey puck filled with chicken, beef or tofu then topped with Asian slaw, fresh kale and house-made cucumber pickles (two with lettuce salad for $13).
“This is what I saw my mother doing for many years,” Thomson says of his love of food. “My menu is very Lao-inspired, with an American twist on it. There will be menu changes, but everything will be made in-house with fresh ingredients that change with the seasons.”
Thomson grew up in Olathe, which is home to a healthy Laotian community. His biological father was captured when the family fled unrest in Laos. His mother and an American father raised him and his three surviving siblings. In middle school, Thomson wrote a 13-page report about how the family made their way to the United States and titled it “Escape to Freedom.”
“I grew up fast,” he says.
For 18 years, Thomson worked for the Anderson Restaurant Group, owners of such notable Kansas City institutions as Pierpont’s and the Hereford House, before deciding to strike out on his own.
At 35 feet, the trailer is unwieldy, but Thomson says he plans to hire a towing company when the right opportunities come along. He envisions Anousone’s as a vehicle for chef-driven fare and six-course meals, including desserts, which he’s developing.
“That’s why I settled on the idea of mobile cuisine,” he says. “I don’t want to be trapped into one cuisine … first and foremost we want to make good food.”
But as we continue to dip, savor and marvel at the nuances of spice, exploring a world of cuisine new to us, it’s the sticky rice that pulls everything together.
“I can’t stop eating this,” one of my friends says as she leans in to dab her rice in more sauce. “I keep going back for more. And more.”
Anousone’s Mobile Cuisine
Located at Little Piggy KC at 3014 Southwest Boulevard. 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight on Friday, 6 p.m.-midnight on Saturday. All $13 dishes are $10 at lunch. Dinner prices start at 5 p.m. For more information, call 913-481-8140.