The pungent aroma gave no hint of heat, but the curry’s spice came on strong, like an uncontrolled fire through brittle brush. It started as a thick liquid spooned onto my tongue that tingled its way into my gums and across the roof of my mouth. The coconut milk did nothing to sate the sear and all I could do was taste its sweetness taunting me through the burn. Breathing harder only worked the chili oils into sweat beads and made my nose run more. And when it all subsided, I was left with the astral aftertaste of dry Indian spices.
Maybe it sounds masochistic, but from that lip-licking moment on, sitting at L.A.’s famous Jitlada restaurant eating Southern Style Curry not too many years ago, I was hooked on Southern Thai food. A vast departure from the savory pad Thai noodles and peanut-sauced spring rolls offered by most Thai restaurants, the country’s southern region breeds food that is known for fresh seafood, lots of fruits and serious intensity, both in flavors and heat.
Unfortunately, Long Beach’s Thai scene was seriously lacking in good examples from this underrepresented southern region, and my local cravings for full-flavored spice were forever relegated to Sura, where a Korean tofu soup spiced to 10 did the trick. But earlier this year, Spicy Sugar opened on Broadway in the heart of the Gayborhood and it’s all I can be bothered to have delivered to my house anymore.
Because, as if the entry of a Southern Thai restaurant into Long Beach wasn’t news enough, Spicy Sugar is owned by a certified member of the Jitlada family, making our new local Thai takeout place as good as a drive to East Hollywood.
Spicy Sugar is entirely owned and operated by Jaratporn “Sugar” Sungkamee, the twenty-something daughter of Jitlada’s chef Suthiporn “Tui” Sungkamee (as the story goes, the Sugar is the reason Tui stayed in the U.S. – after a visit in the ‘90s, the then-4-year-old didn’t want to leave). In the spirit of Tui’s restaurants back home, he and his sister Sarintip "Jazz" Singsanong took over Jitlada in 2006 and have made the place one of the top restaurants in L.A. by adding hundreds of spicy and specialty dishes from their southern coastal village to the menu. Sugar transported many of these recipes down to Spicy Sugar in Long Beach and added dozens more in the not-so-Southern Thai tradition.
This means that I can order a Styrofoam container of not only Tui’s beloved aforementioned Southern Style Curry, but also the Jungle Curry and house green curry, all with a base level spiciness that shouldn’t be altered. Fresh seafood abounds, and I’ve dabbled in uncommon Thai protein options like salmon, clams, red snapper and soft shell crab that come covered in everything from a spicy dry rub to a spicy basil sauce. And like at Jitlada, there are more than a dozen different fried rice dishes, some tossed with meat like crab or lamb, others in spices like turmeric or lemongrass.
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Some of Spicy Sugar’s most interesting items live on a flashy neon menu board in the restaurant’s dining room, which Sugar will gladly read over the phone when you call in your order. On this and subsequent boards (they comprise more of a supplementary menu than a list of daily specials since they have yet to rotate out) is where I’ve discovered favorites like massaman lamb curry, teriyaki fried catfish and chili paste crispy pork. Spicy Sugar singularities include Japanese-style yakisoba ramen stir fry and Americanized chili spaghetti.
When asked why she decided to open up a truncated version of her dad and aunt’s restaurant in little old Long Beach, she told me that the opportunity to take over the Asian Umbrella Café (formerly the breakfast spot, Two Umbrellas) presented itself and she took it.
So as the nights get colder and longer, I find myself growing more appreciative that Sugar took a chance on this city, miles away as it is from Jitlada’s home turf. There’s really no greater feeling than slurping on a Sungkamee–crafted spicy curry from the comfort of your couch. And if the weather keeps up, Spicy Sugar’s speedy delivery of face-numbing Southern Thai specialties might just be the best way to keep warm this winter.
Spicy Sugar, 1538 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 983-3900; spicysugar.eat24hour.com