The first time I had Thai food I was a college freshman in Boston. My dad came up to check on me and ask if I was already behind in science (I was) and how I’d managed to spend $300 in two months at the Campus Convenience store (Marlboro reds and milk for White Russians, obviously). As we sat alone at lunchtime in an otherwise empty dining room slurping spicy and sweet and savory noodles, discussing my uncertain future, I really had no idea how any of it would turn out. Sixteen years later, I have no idea how any of this happened. But I’m sitting in a different Thai restaurant, with another man I love and trust. We’re sampling some of the best food I’ve had in a very long while.
Long Grain is nothing like that place on Commonwealth Avenue. I can’t compare it to any other Asian I’ve been to, and I’m not sure I’m even qualified to write about the complexities of each of the dishes I tried. I can recount the experience and describe it with my limited vocabulary. The flavors are concentrated, layered, vivid. But it’s more than taste; the chef-owners are creating food that engages every sense.
About the mussels: get them, I beg you. They are plump, fresh, and sweet. But what’s even more important is the sauce that they are swimming in. It’s one of those broths you can’t stop slurping up. Using the mussel shells as rustic spoons, an absorbent cloth napkin, and every last grain of rice they serve on the side to deliver this coconut-based elixir to your taste buds. We really could have stopped there. Sharing that appetizer and a bottle of the Snow Beauty unfiltered sake would make for a simply gorgeous meal.
Malcolm: Never one to let the limitations of my vocabulary or lack of knowledge of a particular type of cuisine sway me from blurting out 3,000 words on the subject, these mussels are a perfect place to begin. In a texted message to a friend detailing my dinner plans, his three word reply simply read, “Get the mussels.” He was right. A perfect meal could be made from this appetizer alone, eaten at the bar while drinking entirely too much hot rice wine. The mussels themselves are divine, and call to memory just how many shriveled, dried versions of the shellfish you have been served in other establishments. Here, they are as juicy and fat as they should be. It hardly matters, though. It’s the sauce they are swimming in that will bring you back for another serving, a thin coconut curry spiked with heady punches of lemongrass. I would eat it poured over anything, or, as we did this night, slurped straight out of a spoon.
In my dinner, the Pad Kee Mao, there were mushrooms that looked like noodles, and noodles that resembled onions. And maybe, also, I think actual onions. But I forgot to ask because by the time we left, I was so intoxicated on delicious food, Prosecco, and sake, I could hardly walk or reason, and had to be rolled home in a wheelbarrow.
Pad Kee Mao is the Thai menu staple more commonly known as Drunken Noodle, a dish I’ve ordered 87,000 times. But this was unlike any that I have had before. The Long Grain version is brimming with pork belly (or not, your choice). Our favorite fatty protein lent even more depth and dimension to an already multifaceted meal. My plate also included leafy, toothsome kale, three kinds of locally-foraged mushrooms, including hen-of-the-woods, and pieces of hand cut broad rice noodles, plus, I believe, bits of egg and basil. All of these more or less humble ingredients created seemingly endless combinations with every taste. I ate well past the point of hunger or decorum. I kept saying, “this is my last bite” only to let my fork fall back in the bowl for another half-drunken go round.
Malcolm: I had an enormous steaming bowl of the “Spicy Night Market Noodle Soup,” ($10) a rice noodle soup flavored with chunks of pork, ground sausage, and chopped peanuts. The first flavor to register in your brain is a bright sweetness, followed by a spicy jump-punch to the back of the head that builds cumulatively with each bite. It may be my new perfect food, as evidenced by the garnish of pork rinds that immediately become bloated and fat with the pungent broth as I worked my way through the bowl.
Everything about the place is sensational. It’s small, but not so small that you’re sitting on the laps of strangers. The service was laid back but enthusiastic, and happy to steer you in the right direction. The decor is minimal, but not stark. Long Grain is a comfortable neighborhood place serving food that is astonishingly good. I’d read, before we went, that the flavors were “strong”, which had a kind of negative connotation to me. But I understand what the reviewer meant. Words like bright and bold and concentrated almost begin to describe this stuff, but they fail somehow.
Malcolm: I went ahead and used them anyway.
I’ve seen Long Grain described as “fusion”, which is too vague and cheesy for this place. I have read that it is authentic Bangkok street food with influences from many parts of Asia. Okay, I’m sure it is. I know that they are using local ingredients in traditional forms, which is superglorioushipfantastic.
Malcolm: We can’t call the food being presented at Long Grain “Fusion Cuisine,” because this isn’t 1994 and I’m not standing in a strip mall. We also can’t call it “New Thai” because ew. Instead, we’ll concentrate, as they do at Long Grain, on the ingredients. There’s not a dish of tepid yellow curry with crinkle-cut carrots anywhere in sight. Instead, a focus on what’s available locally, combined with a creative flair for Thai-influenced dishes delivers inexpensive, innovative twists on a cuisine I only thought I knew, all for less money than the generic Chinese takeout from the place sandwiched between the Shaw’s and the Gamestop. It’s a place we’ll return to often.
The conclusion? This is eight tables (plus bar stools) of communal space, a place I want to go every chance I can, to eat everything I can and try to plan what is essentially the unknown path of my destiny. And you should, too.
Long Grain; 31 Elm Street, Camden, Maine 04843; (207) 236-9001