Writing about some of the best takeout fried chicken, pizza, barbecue, sushi, fish and chips and chicken soup in the area — as I have over the past several weeks — narrows my choices down to a finite number of joints, and a limited number of options.
But when I try to come up with the defining obsession at our many Thai restaurants, it’s not easy because there are so many dishes that I, and my fellow heavy forks, can’t live without. Pad Thai noodles? Green papaya salad? Chicken satay with lots of tasty peanut sauce? My daughter can’t live without her pad see ew. My wife can’t resist a proper order of chicken larb. Thai cooking is a happy bestiary of wonderful flavors. And far as I can tell, they all travel brilliantly well.
It’s worth mentioning that, at Thai restaurants all over the Los Angeles area, dishes like mee krob are what you might casually refer to as wildly ubiquitous. At Thai restaurants in Thailand, however, dishes like mee krob aren’t ubiquitous at all. In fact, during several days I spent in Bangkok not long ago, mee krob was something I hardly came upon at all.
Good journalist that I am, I would ask people who knew about food — tuk-tuk (jitney) drivers, exotic dancers, fellows selling ersatz Lacoste shirts on street corners — exactly why I couldn’t find a dish as common in LA as mee krob. The answer usually had something to do with the dish being too complicated for anyone but a master Thai chef to even begin to attempt. By extension, it’s certainly amazing to consider how many master Thai chefs we evidently have here in Los Angeles.
Instead of mee krob, what I found in Bangkok is a cuisine of surprising delicacy, with a good deal of subtlety, and not as a rule the incipient spiciness so common here in Los Angeles. A good example of the current state of Thai cooking over there could be found at a small gem of a Bangkok restaurant called Lemongrass (located at 5/1 Sukhumvit 24, tel. 258-8637, in case you’re in the neighborhood), where diners sit either inside a small, pleasantly decorated wooden house, or in a tiny patio next to a burbling fountain.
What one eats there is a salad of grilled spiced beef with grilled spiced eggplant; ground pork and shrimp wrapped in vermicelli noodles and fried till crispy; a fine salad of green mango and crispy shrimp; roast duck in a green coconut curry sauce; shredded chicken fried with the most scrumptious of pickled vegetables; and very mild chilies stuffed with minced shrimp and pork, also in a curry sauce. The curries are far lighter than our perception of them.
The menu was devoid of either satay, mee krob or any sort of eggroll. The food was great. And even though I’m not at all sure of what the mee krob I had for dinner last night was, I finished every last bite. This is food no one can resist. And it sure does soothe in these hard times. Here are some of my favorites:
2119 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach; 562-343-2651, www.baipluthai.com
This is the restaurant equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — a combination of two of my favorite things, in one pretty foil wrapper.
I’ve loved sushi since the 1970s, at about the same time that those in the know began flocking to Jitlada in Hollywood for noodles and spice. Putting the two cuisines together under one roof is an act of kindness and generosity; it saves us from having to choose between one or the other. You can have your sushi rolls and your noodles, without feeling deprived.
If you’re here for the sushi, this is the place for the deep-fried jalapeño stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese called a Jalapeño Bomb. There are more than 40 exotic special rolls — like the Playboy Roll, shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber topped with with tuna, “crunchy flakes” and eel sauce. There’s a Rocky Roll, a Sweet Girl Roll, a Lakers Roll and a Godzilla Roll. Fun!
And then, there are two pages of Thai dishes referred to as “The Wild Things.” Why some dishes are “Wild Things” while others are “Appetizers” is a bit of a mystery — except the apps seem to be smaller than the wilds. I think.
And though I understand the beef jerky and pork jerky — both properly spicy Thai dishes being wild — the wildness of orange chicken and honey duck is a puzzle.
There are several chow meins, for those in need of a Chinese dish to mix with the Thai and Japanese. There are nine soups (including a chop suey soup, which is…what?), and 12 salads — not one of which is a Caesar salad, and no apparent use of kale, so things don’t go that far.
This is a great restaurant when no one is sure what they want because, short of a hamburger, they’ll probably find it here. At least, I couldn’t find a hamburger on the menu — but it could be hiding somewhere. The eyes do glaze over after a while.
740 E. Broadway, Long Beach; 562-337-8109
This is a Thai eatery that verges on a special event — a special event that you could go to as often as you want. The look and style may be modern and upscale, but the prices are still good for food that’s better than good. Blue Heaven lives up to its name. (And do feel free to hum “My Blue Heaven.” It may be a song from the 1920s, but it’s stuck in the communal consciousness.)
Blue Heaven is richly decorated with Siamese works of art, striking sculptures on the walls, religious art, even a Buddha in an outdoor fountain. And speaking of outdoors, Blue Heaven has an outdoor dining patio — a rarity at Thai restaurants. And perhaps best of all, there’s a parking lot, a spacious parking lot, in the midst of one of the toughest Long Beach neighborhoods in which to park. The restaurant does everything right.
We’re told the Golden Wings (noodle and veggie stuffed chicken wings) “take time to make.” The satays “will tickle your taste buds and make you scream for more.” Of the herb galangal, we’re told “we don’t know either, but Grandma swears it adds real flavor.” And the tom yum goong soup “will definitely rejuvenate your soul.”
As is often the case, you don’t really have to go much beyond the appetizers to create a really satisfying meal — from the wonton wrapped chicken “moneybags” to Chef Joe’s shrimp blanket; from the Thai baby back ribs to the Bellflower Boulevard rice noodle rolls and even the “heavenly” duck rolls.
There’s a combo platter called Blue Heaven Delight to simplify the process. And beyond that, the temptations are too many to name. The Soft Shell Crab Lover Soup is a wonder — who makes soup from soft shells? There’s a sort of Thai jambalaya called Andaman Sea Soup. There’s a beautifully roasted half duck, crispy as could be, in a tamarind sauce. There’s a section of “Meatless Meals” as well, which are so richly spiced, you won’t notice the lack of meat — Thai is a brilliant vegetarian cuisine.
And though I do like mango sticky rice — an object of culinary obsession — the espresso gelato was a pleasure after all that spice. Is it authentically Thai? Does it matter? Blue Heaven redefines the Thai dining experience — on pretty much every level.
754 Pacific Coast Hwy., Long Beach; 562-494-1230, www.cyclonoodles.com
The noodles are divided into Cambodian noodle soup and Vietnamese noodle soup, with soupless Thai noodles under the heading “Fried Dishes.” And actually, not all the noodle soup dishes involve soup. It’s a bit of a mishmash. But not one that should cause panic and disarray.
For the most part, those of us of the noodle persuasion know the dishes. The issue, as I said, is winnowing them down to just what it is that will satisfy at that particular moment. As a point of departure, you should certainly order several of the very tasty, and very appealing, appetizers — crispy egg rolls filled with translucent noodles and veggies, shrimp and chicken spring rolls, intensely flavored beef on a stick (with a memorable papaya and carrot salad on the side), a deep-fried meatball called a “beef ball pop.” Also, a churro-like bread called ja-kwai, that’s soft and puffy and kind of silly — but also good, and maybe even essential to the meal.
And then, it’s noodle time, built around thin rice noodles in a tasty broth, with so many accessory ingredients, the noodles can get a bit lost. Lost in the swell of ground pork, sliced pork, dried shrimp, fish balls, shrimp and squid in Phnom Penh Noodles, flavored further with cilantro and crushed fried garlic. Or lost in the sliced beef, beef tripe and beef balls in the Beef and Beef Ball Noodles — all dishes with roots in Cambodia.
There’s a fine chicken salad with crispy noodles (you can get away from the soup here, but not from the noodles). There’s a cold noodle salad too, and a chicken lettuce wrap that comes with crispy glass noodles. Like I said, noodles linger almost everywhere.
And should you have a need for those aforementioned Thai noodles, under “Fried Dishes,” you’ll find our old friend pad Thai, along with pad see ew, and a pad see ew variant called mee ka tang.
Show up for takeout orders, and you’ll find a row of bags waiting behind the counter. If you can’t sleep, you can always work on the leftovers — which taste just fine later that night, or the next day. Ja-kwai bread for breakfast — well, of course.
Jazz Melody Thai BBQ
17844 Bellflower Blvd., Bellflower; 562-920-6544
Go here for takeout lunch Monday through Saturday, and you can save plenty on the lunch specials — salad, a choice of fried or steamed rice, and a selection of 15 dishes, made with chicken, pork, beef, vegetables or tofu. If you want to cut to the chase, get the turmeric flavored grilled chicken, or the Thai barbecue pork ribs — far more food than you expect for the money.
The melody played here is very reasonably priced indeed. Even at dinnertime, the menu is more than reasonable for favorites like seafood fried rice, made with shrimp and calamari; the seafood soup; the barbecue pork ribs, and the barbecue chicken and rib combo, served with fried rice and egg rolls. The prices are almost embarrassingly low. And mind you, that’s for big portions. The turmeric chicken is more than half a bird — half of a very large chicken. And it tastes very good the next day.
The menu at Jazz Melody is a well-tuned compendium of the Thai dishes we’ve come to know and love over the years, upgraded with the occasional tasty twist — usually marked with the presence of Chef Amy’s name. Amy’s Mighty Wings, for instance, seem to cross over into several cuisines, from Thai through American pub grub. Whatever they are, you can’t stop eating the darned things.
The well-spiced chicken satay is, for a change, not cooked into oblivion — it’s tender and sweet, with a mild flavor of coconut milk. Amy’s Spicy Seafood Soup is a tureen of shrimp, calamari, green mussels and sole. Amy does like her lemongrass. Me too. I also like her green papaya salad, though the spicy beef salad is a pretty strong competitor. There are six flavors of curry, with four proteins to mix in, and a protein combo as well. And Jazz Melody cranks out a terrific pineapple fried rice, an insane pile of rice pineapple, cashew nuts, egg, raisin and lots of aromatic turmeric.
If you want to keep the sweet theme going, there’s mango with sweet rice for dessert — an addictive meal-ender that, once you’re hooked, is as essential as that Thai iced coffee the regulars show up for. Served without jazzy variations; this is familiar Thai food, note for note.
4101 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach; 562-425-2601, https://panvimarn.com; 740 E. Broadway, Long Beach, 562-337-8109
We’ve got a lot of good Thai restaurants here in Southern California — it’s gone way beyond the days when Siamese eateries would label themselves “Thai-Chinese,” because no one knew what the heck pad Thai and mee krob might be. We’ve moved from the days of Generic Thai, to Regionally Specific Thai, where the cooking of the north and the south are recognized as distinctly different, and the influence of neighbors like Laos, Burma and Vietnam are both respected and duly noted.
But Panvimarn is unique, for the menu is both encyclopedic — and a bit goofy, with sections headed “Oodles of Noodles” and “Rice Is Nice.” At the heart of the menu is a section called “Panvimarn 9 Curries,” which ranges from emerald green curry (green coconut sauce), ruby curry (red coconut sauce) and gold curry (yellow coconut sauce), to exotic like roast duck curry, baby pork rib curry and spicy shrimp curry.
There’s beef satay and chicken satay. Of course. “This will tickle your taste buds and make you scream for more!” says the menu.
From the North comes house-made pork sausage with ginger and cashews, along with fried Thai beef jerky, a dish that verges on complete and total addiction.
One of the best ways to sample the menu is with the appetizer plate called a Panvimarn Delight — satay, spring rolls, shrimp blankets, chicken-and-shrimp-filled money bags and fried wontons. There’s a perfectly good appetizer of noodles, green papaya, shrimp and peanuts called “Bellflower Blvd.” — a name probably unknown on the Chao Praya River. But what the heck?
The menu goes on and on — many soups, many salads, superb barbecue chicken, and a section of “Meatless Meals.” As with Indian cooking, vegetarians can be very happy here — the spices are so intense, you won’t notice the absence of meat. In fact, you’ll probably celebrate it.
4152 Norse Way, Long Beach; 562-425-7535, www.stnb.co
ST Noodle Bar may be the quirkiest Thai restaurant in a part of the world rich with Thai options, both expected, and unexpected. It’s one of the tastiest Thai restaurants around — with a menu of dishes familiar, and not so so familiar.
Assuming you go there for a take-out order, get the “mini noodle cups,” which are available only to-go. They’re very cool, a world beyond the cup a soup they sound like. There are three — the egg noodle cup is packed, jammed with noodles, barbecue pork, bok choy, scallions, cilantro and a sauce so good you’ll find yourself scraping it out of the bottom of the cup. The pad Thai cup is built around thinner rice noodles, egg, tofu, bean sprouts, scallions and peanuts. And the rice noodle cup, perhaps the most challenging, has fish balls and barbecue pork, with bean sprouts, scallions and ground peanuts.
This is the sort of food I love to find in my fridge, when I go rummaging around for something to knock down for lunch or — okay, I’ll admit it — breakfast. My breakfast habits can be very odd if there are leftovers in Styrofoam containers. Those containers call to me in my sleep.
Beyond that, there are lots of noodle dishes on the menu — about a third of the dishes are noodlish — prepared every which way. I like the way the menu has certain dishes boxed, under the word “Popular,” just so you’ll know. We all want to eat the popular dishes, don’t we?
There’s the Panang curry pasta, made with salmon, an intensely flavored dish, but not overbearingly so. The spicy lime noodles come in a biting lime sauce, with ground pork and hard-cooked eggs. The fried rad nah is a crispy flat noodle, with your choice of chicken, pork, tofu, beef or shrimp, under a black bean gravy. And there are dishes not often found on Thai menus — like macaroni in a tomato sauce, sparerib Thai ramen, and spaghetti with chili sauce.
There’s chow mein, which brings us back to the days when Thai restaurants were known as “Thai-Chinese,” because so few people knew what Thai food was. Times have, obviously, changed.
Certainly, noodles are the thing to get at STNB, where they’re handled with elegance and élan — and jammed full of flavor. But, of course, there’s more to the menu — I guess we can live by noodles alone, but thank goodness we don’t have to.
The appetizers are many, as they often are, though there is a “hack” to deal with the multitude — the STNB Goodies plate of chicken satay, beef satay, fried wontons, spring rolls, gyoza dumplings and deep-fried shrimp in eggroll skins (affably referred to as “Cozy Shrimp”). It’s all served with an abundance of sauces and cucumber relish. Though it wouldn’t hurt to add on the Thai jerky, a dish of deep-fried beef in a tamarind sauce that’s not for the mild of palate.
I’m a great fan of Thai salads, of which there are eight, including a salad of crispy mushrooms in a spicy lime sauce that I’ve never encountered before. There’s a salad of rock cod as well, in a chili and lime sauce. They do go through their limes at STNB.
There’s a surprising amount of salmon on the menu as well, including a smoked salmon appetizer (Thai-Jewish cuisine?), and a grilled salmon entrée — in, of course, a lime and garlic sauce. And for dessert, a longtime favorite, mango sticky rice, which comes close to equaling my beloved rice pudding in obsessive passion. It soothes, it cleanses, it edifies — so much better than cheesecake.
149 Linden Ave., Long Beach; 562-951-7181, www.thaidistrictrestaurant.com
This is both a familiar Thai restaurant and one with some fascinating twists and turns. The list of apps is polished and honed, winnowed down to the ones that matter — crispy tofu with a complex sweet & sour cilantro peanut sauce; “Golden Bags” (deep-fried taro root and chicken in pastry); veggie intense crispy rolls; chicken wings with a kaffir lime and roasted Thai chili “nhamjim” dipping sauce…and, of course, chicken satay with a very thick, very good peanut sauce.
The food is highly authentic — but also with a fair frisson of Chef’s Ty’s experience cooking on the high end; the multi-ingredient sauces mentioned above give a pretty fair notion of that. Though the sense of this being Thai cooking with a personal edge does persist — in pretty wonderful dishes like the spicy shrimp salad, with its perfectly cooked, large shrimp in a salad made better with Thai basil, chili oil and a classic lemongrass dressing.
The grilled beef salad comes in a spiced tamarind dressing. The chicken larb in a kaffir lime dressing. This chef spends a lot of hours in prep — time well spent when you bite into the food. Consider how the chicken in the wonton soup is spiced with coriander, how the anchovies in the green papaya salad have been crisped. How gailan — a Chinese cross between kale and broccoli — is used in the pad see ew, while sour pickled mustard is sued in the kao soi egg noodle dish.
There are four noodle dishes, rice dishes (four again) and six curries to choose from, with a selection of proteins as a sort of non-dessert mix-in. The curries include a kabocha pumpkin curry, which is a fine touch, made with spiced pepitas. There’s also a pineapple curry, made with candied pineapple. And the same mix of proteins also get sautéed with a choice of 10 vegetable dishes. Fresh ginger chicken with sesame oil sounds pretty fine to me. And so does the “Too Good to Hare!” selection of dishes like spicy garlic and basil salmon, honey glazed duck, and braised pork loin and belly with tamarind and turmeric.
For dessert, there’s a coconut panna cotta and warm flourless chocolate lava cake, among other dishes. The chef hasn’t lost his pastry kitchen chops. But then, cooking pastry is like riding a bicycle — once you know how, you know how for life.
4722 E. 2nd St., Long Beach, 562-438-5838, www.thaigourmetlongbeach.com
You want good vegetarian food, then go to a non-vegetarian restaurant and order the meatless dishes. Works every time. Have you ever noticed how many of the dishes at Italian restaurants are meatless? Indian restaurants are, by definition, Heaven on Earth for veggies. And Siamese joints — no worries.
There are vegetable dishes to spare here. The menu at Thai Gourmet doesn’t just randomly distribute its meatless dishes. There are sections headed “Vegetarian Appetizers,” “Vegetarian Soups,” “Vegetarian Salads,” “Vegetarian Curries,” “Vegetarian Entrees” and “Vegetarian Noodles.”
The vegetarian options are mostly built around tofu — the go-to source of protein for those who don’t eat critters. There’s an app of deep-fried tofu, topped with crushed peanuts and the sweet chili sauce that’s one of the hallmarks of Thai cooking. It tastes really good — though I suspect my sneakers would taste good with enough chili sauce.
There’s tofu in the two vegetarian soups as well — the tom yum tofu and the spicy coconut soup. But much of the flavor comes from the rest of the soup — the lemongrass and galangal and kaffir lime leaves and mushrooms and lime juice.
Admittedly, I do miss the presence of shrimp. Which is why I lean towards non-veg tom yum goong, and tom kha goong. The notion of vegetarian salads may seem a bit quirky — aren’t salads veggie by definition? Which they are in some cuisines. But not in the world of Thai, where the salads are heavy with minced meats, grilled pork, ribeye, salmon and shrimp. But once again, there’s so much going on in the vegetarian salads, you probably won’t miss the meat — glass noodles, sliced scallions, Asian parsley, mint leaves, dried chili flakes, cashew nuts, spicy lime dressing, peanut dressing. It’s very busy indeed. And “busy” is indeed a defining quality of Thai cooking.
There’s nothing on the menu that’s just…a thing. Just consider the dish made with shrimp, red chili paste, pineapple, coconut milk, sweet basil, red Serrano peppers and kaffir lime leaves. It’s a stew and three quarters — an exercise in the many levels of flavor that can exist in a single dish. There’s a variation on the dish that adds sliced pumpkin as well. Toss in some pineapple fried rice (which also includes shrimp, raisins, onion, cashews and yellow curry) and you have a downright symphony of flavors — a combo of dishes that almost completely overwhelm your taste buds.
To calm things down, consider a tasty plate of pad Thai, the classic fried flat rice noodle dishes made with bok choy, carrots, egg and soy — a dish that’s nearly minimalist by comparison. Or maybe the entrée called, simply enough, “Pepper and Garlic,” which is just that, meat of your choice tossed with pepper and garlic.
The desserts are essential, though they get busy again. There’s mango sticky rice — warm and gooey and mixed with coconut milk. And sticky rice with Thai egg custard. No tofu, though it might work. I’m not ruling it out.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.