When a gregarious Cambodian of Laotian descent — who’s been cutting hair out of a repurposed house on 10th Street for the last 15 years – decides he’s sick of going home for lunch, all of Long Beach benefits. Bless be to Lam, the owner of an eponymous barber shop and beauty salon, who back in February took over the adjoining unit of his businesses’ duplex and opened Tasty Food To Go.
From the street view, the humbly named take-out joint gives zero hints about its 24-item menu of authentic made-to-order Thai and Lao food or the fact that Lam’s own aunt is usually the one in the kitchen pok-pok-ing some crazy spice mix in her large mortar and pestle.
There’s nothing about the numbered framed photographs of each dish hanging on the wall to tell you that all sorts of variables (such as spice, sweetness, meat) are entirely customizable. Nor does it state that many of them can be prepared either Thai or Lao style, depending on your flavor preference (or homeland). The pricing, $7.25 per order, is also subtly displayed, hand scrawled on a piece of paper propped up near the register.
For most of the information about what Tasty Food To Go is all about (or for a run down on the differences between Thai and Lao cooking), you’ll have to ask Lam, which is easy since whenever the man doesn’t have a razor or a pair of scissors in his hand, he usually wanders next door with an ever-present grin to check in on his family and crack jokes with whomever is waiting for their order.
If Thai food is the sweet and savory Southeast Asian cuisine that won over the takeout-ordering White masses with its complex-yet-approachable curries and noodles, it’s here that you’ll learn that Lao cuisine is its abrasive, DGAF-ing, punk rock older brother (our esteemed critic Edwin recently made a similar comparison, saying "if Thai food is bright and broadly appealing like a Disney flick, Lao food can be funky, dark and complex like a Tim Burton art-house film"). In addition to not being big fans of sugar, Lam will tell you, his people favor both more intense spiciness and increased use of aromatic spices (a la Indian cuisine) than their Thai neighbors.
While closely related to northern (Issan) Thai food, Lao versions of dishes like papaya salad and larb differ by being a contrasting swirl of spicy, sour, salty and fishy that almost makes them more akin to Cambodian food than anything else in the region. (Lao papaya salad comes with raw crab; Thai with dried shrimp.)
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Mention to Lam that you’ve had Cambodian food before and his eyes will light up as he explains how the oldest kingdom in Southeast Asia were the first to bring curries (like the red, green and yellow kinds he sells) to the peninsula. The nam tok, a cold beef salad, is familiar if you’ve ever had Khmer plear sach go, a lime-juice-marinated array of steak chunks, fresh herbs and vegetables that’s been called “the Asian carpaccio.” Tasty Food’s Nam Tok is similar (but spicier, natch) and is pitched to customers – who often stop by after shopping at Northgate across the street — as a Lao ceviche.
Lam is a proud Laotian and is always encouraging his customers to try something different, making the familiar Thai dishes like pad Thai, pad kee mao and tom kha gai seem like lures offered simply to get Long Beach on the Lao train. But a lure is barely needed when Tasty Food To Go is already low-key serving up some of the best Southeast Asian takeout in Long Beach, all with heart, community, good conversation — and a haircut — on the side.
2015 E 10th St, Long Beach; (562) 599-9756