>> Chiang Rai เชียงราย | Eat the World Los Angeles

Thursday 31 March 2022

Chiang Rai เชียงราย

E. Anaheim Street facade

🅿️ Street Parking
🥤 Beer, wine, and sake

For Long Beach residents who have been zipping by on busy Anaheim Street for decades, a Thai restaurant on this corner has just felt normal. For some time the awning read "Dear Heart Thai Cuisine," and for even longer the restaurant was named "May's Thai Kitchen" even though the two titles shared space on the front. At the end of 2018, a new team took over and revamped the restaurant to focus on street food by the name of Moo Pa (wild boar).

While the food probably stayed pretty consistent during these many transitions and attracted a wide range of customers who were not necessarily seeking the most traditional Thai tastes, an important thing happened during the last iteration. At this time, the new owner and chef who lived in and is married to someone from Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand became part of the team. She has now taken over the restaurant when the owners recently decided to move to Texas, and has made a few changes to reflect her family's foods.

Chiang Rai painted wall sign (เชียงราย)

The restaurant now takes the name of that northern city of Chiang Rai, as seen colorfully painted on the interior wall and surrounded by more color on every surface and an abundant amount of neon. At the beginning of 2022 when the shift happened, much of the menu stayed the same to appease the longtime customers of this neighborhood favorite, but a little corner evolved called "Chiang Rai Local Food" that should be the focus of diners that want to try more unique options.

This is not Thai Town, so they will still be careful with customers and the ingredients including spice levels. But the best idea is to express an interest in the Chiang Rai specialties and confirm you want all the tastes to be accurate and that is why you have come. This will unlock the recipes of her cousins and in-laws from back home, and the new owner might even pop into the kitchen to make sure the dishes come out just right.

Beef khao soi ข้าวซอยเนื้อ

A dish that many Californians will be very familiar with even if they have not dined at a northern specialist is khao soi ($16, above), but the levels of deliciousness are raised here and definitely set a bar for others to strive towards. Even the presentation is perfect, with a tight ball of fried noodles adorning each bowl, a complex colorful broth, and the garnishes for adding all the right tastes.

Often a traditional bowl of khao soi will come with a chicken drumstick or two, but this bowl was chosen for its sliced rib eye. Beef is always a great combination for this particular spicy curry paste, sweet coconut milk, and other flavors in the bowl. You can also choose sai oua, a northern Thai sausage if you please, or go with tofu if meat is not in your plans.

Kanom jeen nam ngiew ขนมจีนนํ้าเงี้ยว

One of the dishes that Chiang Rai city is known for most, with specialists of the Shan dish dotting the entire town, is Kanom jeen nam ngiew ($14, above). The most popular of these specialists are thronged during lunch hours, and this bowl served in Long Beach could give most of those places a run for their money. An important ingredient that many do not include outside of Thailand is thua noa, fermented beans that are dried into the shape of a tostada for shipping and storage. These are cooked down into the final broth, but their aroma and flavor is key.

Unfortunately the dried red cotton flower that also gives the dish its signature taste is even harder to find in Southern California and is not present. But throw in the rice noodles (kanom jeen), pickled greens, cabbage and bean sprouts and you will not miss them that much. The savory funky broth is a pork lovers paradise, populated by spare ribs, cubes of blood, and ground meat.

Moo sam chun tod หมูสามชั้นทอดนํ้าปลา

To round out a first meal, even more pork was requested with the moo sam chun tod ($13, above), a way to get a portion of the green chili nam prik noom. "Moo sam chun" literally translates to three layer pork, the way Thais call pork belly. Here the meat is marinated in fish sauce before frying, and served with some crisp fingers of cucumber.

While the exterior is supremely crispy, the fry is gentle and the interior is still very juicy when the pieces are sliced afterwards. If you are in the mood for a spicy meal, ask for your nam prik noom to be heated up, as they prepare this and some other dishes at a more mild level for the bulk of their customers.

Takeout order

Midnight Chiang Rai chicken ไก่ทอดเที่ยงคืน

The first sit down meal went so well that an array of dishes were ordered for takeaway, again focusing on all the specialties from Chiang Rai. One dish that could not (and should not) be passed up promised the style found in Chiang Rai's night markets, called Midnight Chiang Rai chicken ($15, above). This fried chicken is not unlike the style made famous in Hat Yai but now found throughout the country.

A thin batter keeps all the moisture within the skin, but the important components here are the beautiful marinade, loads of fried onions that are tossed all over the bird, and good dipping sauces. The dish is most commonly served with a side of sticky rice, but you can also enjoy it here with curry and roti if desired.

Chiang Rai pork larb ลาบเชียงราย

While larb is most well known in Los Angeles in its Lao or Isaan style, places like (Amphai) Northern Thai Food Club have started to offer Lanna style. This version does not rely on lime juice for sourness or fish sauce for fermented flavors, instead employing a variety of dried spices and herbs like cloves, thippaly, star anise, cumin, cinnamon, and prickly ash seeds.

The resulting Chiang Rai larb ($13, above) is dark brown to the point of almost blackness, and an explosion of flavors as you would think from its list of ingredients. It can be made with chicken, pork, or beef, and despite being fairly dry is a pleasure to eat on its own and with sticky rice.

Gang hung lay แกงฮังเล

Trips to northern Thai restaurants should never miss an order of gang hung lay ($14, above), a curried pork dish made with ample amounts of ginger and garlic. It is meant to be oily, so be sure to enjoy it with rice. A side of jasmine rice is provided, but do as someone from Chiang Rai would do and swap that out for more sticky rice.

The sai oua ($12, below) is probably not the dish that will wow you the most during a meal here, but it does pass the test and is another good reason to keep enjoying sticky rice and eating it all with your hands. Again leaving out the sour and fermented flavors of Isaan sausages, this northern style is full of herbs like galangal, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves.

Sai oua ไส้อั่ว

Nam prik ong นํ้าพริกอ่อง

Especially if you eat at Chiang Rai with a group, order a plate of nam prik ong ($13, above) for the table. This ground chicken curry "dip" is served with chopped up vegetables and cab moo (crisp pork rinds) and helps offset the richness of the rest of a meal.

With the deftness the chef is showing with all of these Chiang Rai specialties, it is clear you would not be disappointed by a plate of pad thai or pineapple curry, but keep your focus on the bottom left of the large menu for these much more special experiences. It is terrific that Greater Los Angeles has added another northern Thai restaurant to its rolls, and even better for nearby residents of Long Beach and harbor communities.


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