An Asian Oasis
Asian food shines at the midcoast’s newest dining mecca.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
- Photography by: Amy Wilton
The small, unassuming Long Grain restaurant tucked in between Rite Aid and Zoot coffee shop on the main street in Camden has a paper menu taped to the door that functions as a sign. Inside, twenty-six seats create an intimate and unpretentious atmosphere. The décor is an unlikely mix of homey New England and stark East Asian street cart.
Between tables, Paula Palakawong shuffles with an unbridled friendliness, taking orders and making guests feel at home, while her husband, Ravin Nakjaroen (also known as Bas) cooks from-scratch, home-style Asian food in the kitchen. The small menu emphasizes the ubiquitous street food found in their hometown of Bangkok: Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Indian influenced comfort cuisine.
The story of how Paula and Bas ended up cooking top-notch Asian food in a small village in midcoast Maine actually begins back in Bangkok. They grew up a fifteen-minute drive apart and yet never met. At the same time they happened to favor one street vendor dish (pad see ew), from one particular street cart (ma) in the city. The couple didn’t discover the coincidence until well after they eventually met in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Paula was getting her master’s in International Business and working at the restaurant where Bas was cooking. Eventually they decided to go into the restaurant business themselves, opening the Four Rivers Contemporary Thai Kitchen. They served high-end food that was good enough to earn Bas the honor of semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award Best Chef South in 2008.
When the economy turned sour, the expensive restaurant struggled. But a frequent customer, Talbot Freeman, who hailed from Camden, had a business proposition: Come to Maine and help him open the White Lion — a cocktail and raw bar restaurant.
Having never been to the Pine Tree State, the couple and their young daughter came for a visit. “We spent two nights here and decided to move. Can you believe it?” says Paula. “We loved the nature and the landscape. I remember we went to Fresh off the Farm and thought, ‘We wouldn’t need Whole Foods anymore!’ And Jess’s Seafood Market: I was amazed by the quality of the seafood. And then we talked to people who actually grew their own vegetables. In Florida, people look at you like you’re a weirdo if you try to grow your own vegetables.”
Three weeks later they packed up the car and moved. After that first summer helping Freeman, Paula and Bas were itching to start a venture of their own again. This time around they wanted to do something different, to create “a place that is comfortable for all income levels — it’s what people need anywhere, anytime, in any town,” says Paula.
But most Maine towns can’t boast the kind of authentic, quality Asian food that comes out of the kitchen of this humble restaurant, which opened last September. Bas has a gift for dishes that are honest, satisfying, and fresh.
The spicy night market noodles come in a delicious bath of savory pork-studded broth with a kick of heat. The multigrain fried rice — a truly craveable dish — sports five kinds of rice, all cooked separately to ensure each grain is the right consistency. The spicy Thai basil minced chicken exudes an umami savoriness. The pork bun appetizer is freshly steamed to perfection. The pad see ew, inspired by Paula and Bas’ beloved street cart in Bangkok, is a decadent mix of homemade wide rice noodles with sturdy local greens and sticky, sweet soy sauce. You simply can’t go wrong.
Being in Maine, Bas admits, has changed his repertoire a bit: “I use a lot more wild mushrooms, collard greens, and kale instead of Asian greens, oysters, Pemaquid mussels, and shellfish.” A recent example of the resulting Asian-Maine fusion: a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with Maine shrimp and served with a fresh herb salad.
Some of Long Grain’s fresh produce even comes from customers, a testament to the community this new-to-town couple has already fostered. “We only bought tomatoes once when we first opened,” says Paula. “The rest of the summer through the fall we didn’t have to buy tomatoes at all because our customers and friends brought us their extras.” A loyal flock of locals, from kids to grandparents, often on a first-name basis with Paula, now depend (some daily) on Long Grain for ethnic, healthful sustenance.
Because the food is so simple by design and the space so humble, there aren’t many external clues signifying the level of sophisticated, refined cooking happening at Long Grain. But a stunning dessert gives the game away. Order the buttercup squash mochi (a soft, rice-based, doughy paste) with caramelized coconut filling over black sweet rice with coconut crème and a black sesame tuille. One look, followed by a sumptuous bite, and you’ll realize that this isn’t your average small-town take-out joint. Rather, it’s a treasure in disguise that just happens to be located in a small — and very grateful — midcoast village.
Long Grain is located at 31 Elm Street in Camden. It is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Appetizers $6-$9; entrees $8.50-$14; desserts $6. 207-236-9001.
Watch a video of chef Ravin Nakjaroen preparing some dishes in the kitchen at Long Grain.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
- Photography by: Amy Wilton