It has become a common thing for those who live in Camden to cap significant life events with a meal at Long Grain. They go to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, as well as new jobs and journeys. They go to catch up with friends. But they also go when they need to feel uplifted.
I know this because I live in Camden, and Long Grain is that place for me, too. Many bad days have been turned around with a bowl of night market noodle soup or a helping of steamed mussels, which arrive in a pot of spicy coconut lemongrass broth. Everything here is as extraordinary and exciting as it is soothing and familiar. And it is thanks in large part to husband-and-wife owners Paula Palakawong and Ravin Bas Nakjaroen’s deep affection for the street food of their native Bangkok.
”For us, street food is comfort food,” says Palakawong. “In Thailand, street food is about feeding people. There is no fancy décor, so the food has to be great.”
And the food at Long Grain is just that. The fact that Nakjaroen has twice been named a James Beard Award semifinalist, and recently garnered a Rising Star Chef award, is testament to how special the food is. When the couple opened their 30-seat restaurant in 2010, Camden had seen several restaurants come and go in that downtown strip, including another Thai restaurant. However, Long Grain became an instant favorite among locals and tourists, mainly because of Nakjaroen and Palakawong’s ability to combine the vibrant flavors of Bangkok with the rich harvests of Maine while staying true to Thai cuisine.
Nakjaroen says all too often Thai restaurants Americanize the cuisine, and when they do this, distinctive dishes like Panang curry are misrepresented. “The curry you get at most restaurants is too light, too soupy, and they dress it with unnecessary vegetables,” he says. “That’s not how we cook it back home. I wanted to share with our customers how it should be experienced.” Long Grain’s Panang curry is robust, underscored by a paste of kaffir lime leaves, roasted spices, shrimp paste, dried red chiles, and lemongrass, among other ingredients. The beef that is braised in the curry is fall-apart tender and absorbs every bit of the curry’s flavor.
For Palakawong and Nakjaroen, using the best and freshest ingredients is paramount to their food. To this end, they have local farmers and foragers visit every day during the harvest seasons, and they have built close and meaningful relationships with each of them. It allows Nakjaroen the opportunity to create daily specials based on the availability of local ingredients. ”The freshness, flavors, and varieties of the things that you find here make such a difference in what we are able to cook and what flavors we can play with,” says Palakawong.
Prior to moving to Maine, the couple lived in Fort Lauderdale for 15 years and ran a restaurant. There were no small farms, nor the same variety in sea and land that you find here. The bounty of the northeast, Palakawong says, offers myriad opportunities for play: Maine crab fried rice topped with a free-range egg; smoked mackerel fried rice; glass noodle salad with local fiddleheads, lovage, and mushroom; Korean-style mung bean pancake with local wild ramp; spicy, wide-rice noodles, stir-fried with locally foraged mushrooms and kale harvested from local farms.
Every single dish is an expression of curiosity and imagination. It is also an expression of love from Nakjaroen and Palakawong. You feel it the minute you walk into Long Grain, no matter what reason brings you there. The famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, “It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” It feels so appropriate then, that when you sink your spoon into a bowl of coconut soup at Long Grain, or revel in the lively flavors of their Thai beef salad, you suddenly feel as though you have everything you need right in front of you.
Long Grain | 31 Elm Street | Camden | facebook.com/longgrain