Words by Joe Ricchio | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
A Camden dining destination moves into a new space, making room for a larger kitchen and an Asian market.
Before my first visit to Long Grain’s new location, a block away from the old one, I was curious about how an expansion would affect a restaurant that many would agree was already perfect. I have seen it happen many times where a successful formula in one spot does not smoothly translate to a bigger space doing higher volume—there is frequently a period of chaos and adjustment while operational practices are reassessed.
That is not the case with Long Grain.
Although the dining room itself feels more open and spacious, there is actually the exact same number of seats as before—and the tables themselves were brought from the old restaurant. The only addition is a simple round top that can seat six (a party size that definitely presented more of a challenge previously).
This indeed came as a revelation when it was explained to me by Paula Palakawong, who owns Long Grain with her husband, Ravin “Bas” Nakjaroen. If she hadn’t told me, I doubt I would have put two and two together, but upon further consideration, it is a genuinely brilliant idea.
“I don’t like to call the move an expansion, because that is not what it was,” Palakawong says. “The reason for moving was not only to have a bigger and more well-equipped kitchen but also to provide a more comfortable space for both dine-in and takeout customers. We could have added many more tables, but we chose not to.”
Although the primary menu remains consistent with the old space, the new kitchen allows for impressive, labor-intensive specials like Cantonese roasted duck. This process involves blowing air into the bird to separate the skin from the meat, bathing it in a well-seasoned broth, and hanging it to air-dry. It can take up to five days to complete, with particular steps requiring two people, but the result is magically crispy skin, ultratender meat, and a rich, umami-laden pan gravy that is served with the duck over rice with fresh vegetables.
A grand addition to the restaurant is a well-stocked Asian market, which helped not only to utilize the extra space but also to showcase Long Grain’s growing number of retail products, which were launched with their Magic Sauce, a spicy, crunchy condiment of fried shallots, chilies, and garlic. They now make their own sriracha sauce, an homage to the more piquant, less sweet version native to Thailand, as well as various spice blends such as pho seasoning and Chinese five spice. While they continue to expand this line, the rest of the market boasts an impressive array of Asian condiments and pantry staples, which to the trained eye have definitely been cherry-picked to offer the best brands available in Maine. In fact, Palakawong and Nakjaroen have managed to put together a concise selection of products that in most cases would require visits to several different markets in Portland.
This leads to the other important reason for opening the market.
“Because of the difficulty of getting these products delivered this far north, no one had ever attempted an Asian market much north of Portland,” Palakawong says. “And our customers, many of them avid home cooks, would often come to us looking to purchase ingredients for their own kitchens.”
What this means for fortunate midcoasters is that when the craving strikes for Long Grain’s Spicy Night Market Soup—a dish that essentially combines the best elements of pho, ramen, and tom yum soup into one insanely delicious creation—the attempt to replicate it can happen well outside of business hours. Just like on the streets of Bangkok, where it is spicy noodles, 24/7. I can personally vouch for said craving, as I have enjoyed the sweet, spicy, salty, and tangy layers of the Night Market Soup, which is garnished with crunchy pork rinds, on nearly every visit to the restaurant.
Most offerings on the main menu will never change, like the pad ke mao with house-made wide rice noodles stir-fried with Thai basil, organic greens, mushrooms, and a choice of meat, a dish that Palakawong admits would be her last meal on earth, if given the option. Others, like the pan-fried garlic chive rice cakes, have been tinkered with slightly—in this case, the addition of more chives to boost the flavor, as well as frying to achieve a crunchier texture that still leaves the center of the cake in all its molten glory.
One of the great pleasures of Long Grain is the availability of a diverse wine list built to pair with the menu, which tends to be a rarity in casual Asian restaurants. A bowl of Maine crab fried rice, topped with the optional fried egg, only gets better when paired with a glass of Christophe Thorigny Vouvray, a dry Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley with balanced acidity and a finish reminiscent of limestone and ripe stone fruit. Nakjaroen’s Chinese yellow noodles with roasted pork and Chinese sausage can handle something a bit more robust, such as the Vietti Barbera D’Asti from Piedmont—a fruity, approachable red from a producer known for higher-end Barolo.
How the Long Grain team has ported the restaurant into a new home without skipping a beat is both impressive and comforting. The local following has always been there, as well as an increasing number of diners who go out of their way to make a special stop in Camden. They come looking for their fix of steamed mussels in coconut lemongrass broth or house-made kimchi with pork belly and rice cake and can rest assured that the journey is not only still worth it but actually even more so.
I’m just glad that the beautiful array of vintage cookware, the bounty from years of tireless antiquing around Maine, still adorns the walls as it did before—symbolizing the old living in harmony with the new.