A year and a half ago, I arranged to meet up for lunch with a Cambodian friend of mine for a chat about Sinn Sisamouth, aka the Elvis of Cambodia. My friend, a spoken word artist whose riffs on the Killing Fields have brought full rooms to tears, was helping some filmmakers stage a fundraising event in Long Beach for their Sisamouth documentary and I wanted to talk more with him about this elusive Khmer hero.
He suggested we meet at Elephant Garden on Long Beach Boulevard, a place that advertised Thai food but was owned by an ethnic Laotian who had survived the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Because of its owner's heritage, I thought there might be a secret menu of Cambodian or Laotian dishes hiding beneath an operation that specialized in neighborhood noodle delivery, but soon after letting my friend order for the table, I realized the owner instead chose to load his menu up with Northern Thai and Issan dishes, which because of their proximity to Laos and Cambodia (Issan is northeast Thailand), more closely resemble the cuisines of both countries than the coconut curries and peanut sauces of Americanized Thai food.
Though I have since returned several times and eaten their killer pad Thai (it's all orange and silky and not too sweet), Elephant Garden – which was recently renamed Elephant Thai Kitchen –- is one of the few places in Long Beach where you can also branch out into new Thai-ventures. Of this, I have also taken full advantage.
You'll find all the regional favorites you need for a Northern Thai primer in the middle of the menu (but unfortunately not on the $8 lunch menu). They include: the Burmese-influenced curry noodle soup known as khao soi; nam phrik, a fiery Thai chili dip that comes in either a vegetarian green or a porky bolognese-style red; sai oua, a Laotian-style sausage seasoned with lemongrass galangal and kaffir lime leaves; and larb.
Oh larb. How I fell in love with thee at Elephant Garden, where the traditional minced meat salad is prepared Northern Thai, not Issan, style. This means the ground pork and nutty toasted rice concoction that define the dish has no citrusy kick from any lime, and no sourness from a helping of fish sauce. Instead, it derives all of its flavor from an extensive mix of herbs and spices, from cumin to star anise, with a kick of chili spice as a sendoff.
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As my friend and I talked about the Elvis of Cambodia that day (there were definitely a few Tupac references), I scooped helpings of larb into cabbage leaves and chewed with my mouth closed, exhaling through my nose the unmistakeable aromatics of food from the mountainous, jungly region of Northern Thailand.
Elephant Thai Kitchen, 2087 Long Beach Blvd, Long Beach, (562) 513-3015; elephantthaikitchen.eat24hour.com