Comparing dishes across cultures is always dicey, but there’s no other way to describe the gung che num pa at Royal King Elephant except as Thai aguachile. As with the trendy Mexican seafood dish, it’s raw, chilled shrimp served alongside tomatoes and cucumbers, and it’s spicy. But whereas aguachile is cold and fiery, gung che num pa (which the Royal King Elephant menu helpfully translates as “spicy raw shrimp”) is funky and hellacious. About 10 shrimp are tossed on a bed of shredded cabbage, drowned in fish sauce, then slathered in a fermented chile paste heavy on ginger and lemongrass. Eat one shrimp, and you get equal parts sweet and tart, with just a tab of heat at the finish; eat the whole meal, and you’re left panting at the end, the chile paste gradually pummeling through your sweat glands like the end of “Bolero.”
This is exciting food in an exciting place: Royal King Elephant is the county’s third Laotian restaurant, all of which stand in Garden Grove. It’s technically more of a Thai place, though, because Americans are more used to that culture’s cuisine. So the menu currently lists mostly Thai classics: a fine crying tiger, curries, pad Thai, fried rice and the like. Ignore those in favor of the Laotian specialties, some of the boldest meals you’ll have this summer. Take the awesomely named tom zap, translated as “Lao beef soup”: It pulsates with flavors—not just the fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, galanga and lemongrass serving as the flavor base, but also chunks of liver, heart, intestines and tripe. It’s a dish so offal-riffic it makes haggis taste like celery. A bit tamer is the khao piak; the only organ meat here is the tangy pork blood used to freshen up the chicken and noodles. Need something more familiar? The Lao-style pho is spicier than its Vietnamese neighbor—but getting pho at a Laotian restaurant near Little Saigon is like ordering tacos in Villa Park.
And when you come here, start with the gung che num pa. Yeah, it’s technically Thai, but the Mekong wasn’t carved in a day, you know?
Royal King Elephant, 9924 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, (714) 638-1887.