Have you ever had something so spicy it burns the skin? It happened to me with S.T. Noodle Bar's khao soi, a bowl of flat, yellow egg noodles drowned in a coconut-curry broth. I ordered it medium, which I believe is the standard there, and in the middle of my slurping, a few drops of the yellow liquid dribbled down my chin. First, I felt a warmness there. Then it actually stung. I realized then that what the restaurant called its medium level of spice was probably as hot as I could handle. There were still two levels above that–spicy and extra-spicy–but here I was, not even halfway through the bowl, and my whole mouth throbbed and my brow had turned into Niagara Falls. If you had sat across the table from me, you would've thought I was in pain, but instead, I was in a euphoric state of endorphin-fueled pleasure, with John Mellencamp's "Hurts So Good" playing in my head.
Yet the khao soi here isn't hot for the sake of being hot. It's just one facet in a dish that's also sweet, pungent and creamy–a curry soup so complex I took some of the leftover gravy home and doused it over plain rice, creating another dish that was just as good. At the restaurant, it's served with an accompanying side dish of add-ons that includes a thimble of sliced red onion, pickled Chinese vegetables, lime wedges, fried crispy noodles and an extra container of dark-as-crude chile sauce in case I wanted to compound the burn.
But even counting the unapologetic use of chiles and the liver in the Thai boat noodle, S.T. Noodle Bar doesn't seem to feel the need to box itself in as a Thai-only joint. There's a ramen dish, gyoza and udon. The kitchen isn't above serving spaghetti and macaroni alongside the standard pad Thai and a playful lychee-and-squid salad I've never seen anywhere.
The restaurant–which sits in a cluster of old buildings right across from Boeing's Long Beach plant–fancies itself a modern fusion joint. You get the impression it's a pet project by the next generation of the Sweetee Thai clan. A collection of porcelain animal heads decorate one wall, and when I went to the restroom to splash water on my face, I did it over a brass sink, near a waterless urinal that has a video screen built into it.
Design also counts for a lot in the dishes. Ask for the fried squid, and the rings arrive dangling on the branches of an ornamental metal tree. Order the fried tofu, a typical Thai restaurant appetizer, and it comes unnecessarily skewered on sticks. But perhaps the most outrageous dish of all is the salmon meing kum, a traditional Thai street snack elevated to something of a modern art piece.
It's presented in a big plate that resembles an oversized painter's palette, each dimple filled with what you'll eventually wrap inside long stalks of lettuce. You assemble the wrap in stages. First, a thin slice of smoked salmon goes in; then, some diced lime with the peel still attached. Next up: a little bit of the diced ginger, some diced red onion and a few rounds of the Thai chile. For crunch, you sprinkle on roasted peanuts. Finally, the finishing touch: a shower of toasted coconut and a spoonful of tamarind sauce with the consistency and sweetness of marmalade. And when you bite into it, textures and flavors explode. The salmon's silk collides with the toasted coconut's crispness. Then the intensity of the raw ginger, the heat of the chiles and the sugar of the tamarind battle for dominance. It leaves you breathless and eager to start the process all over again.
Not all of S.T.'s dishes are showboating spectacles. There's a homey dish of chapo, crinkly egg noodle topped with flavored soy and three kinds of pork (Chinese sausage, Chinese barbecue pork and crunchy fried pork belly) that reminds me of something I ate from a Singapore hawker stall a few years ago. On another night, I tried the simple elegance of the choo-chee salmon, a fish steak draped in panang-style curry sauce decorated with microfilaments of deep-fried kaffir lime leaves. I decided nothing was better with a bowl of sticky rice, except maybe the Crying Tiger, which is technically a salad, but actually a stand-alone steak dish so tender it melted.
And of course, S.T. Noodle Bar offers the desserts required of all Thai restaurants: fried bananas, coconut ice cream and sticky rice with mangos so sweet it reminds you of that eternal question–how is it that every Thai joint always seems to find the perfect mangos no matter what time of year it is?
S.T. Noodle Bar, 34152 Norse Way, Long Beach, (562) 425-7535; longbeach.stnb.co. Open Mon.-Fri, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m. & 5-10 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Meal for two, $25-$50, food only. Beer and wine.