Camden, a small town in Knox County, Maine is my happy place. For the last four years we’ve staycationed in Camden for our November wedding anniversary.
Camden in November is a very different place than Camden in say, July. As the temperatures drop and the tourists leave, the seasonal restaurants are shuttered for the winter. The year-round restaurants rely on the business of locals to make it through the cold winter. Last November we made the brisk walk from The Camden Harbor Inn (our favorite place to stay – and you MUST eat at Natalies while you’re there) arriving at Long Grain with red noses and stinging ears not once, but twice.
Although it was a random Tuesday morning at the end of November, the small restaurant was packed (you MUST make a reservation!) and we were happy to slide onto the bar stools and sit elbow to elbow with locals slurping their noodles. Our first Long Grain experience was one of those quiet meals without much conversation because you’re too into the food, stopping occasionally to exchange delighted “I know, right!??!?” glances with your dining partner.
Since those memorable meals, I’ve been
obsessively craving thinking about the bold flavors of Long Grain. Last week I convinced a bunch of friends that a four-hour-round-trip drive up to Camden to eat at Long Grain was a really smart idea.
Once you’ve found the restaurant (there’s no signage), it’s time to make some tough decisions as you’ll likely want to order one of everything from the regular and daily special menu. The husband and wife owners Ravin Nakjareon (a two-time James Beard semifinalist) and Paula Palakawong hail from Bangkok and their Thai food occasionally hints at Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese influence with ramen, kimchi and Vietnamese noodles on the menu. Seasonal Maine ingredients also play a key role at this restaurant – local ramps, plump Maine mussels and more.
We ordered a bunch of appetizers starting with pan-fried garlic chive rice cakes. The green-hued slabs were perfumed with the spring flavors of chive and garlic. Sauteed beansprouts floating in the savory sauce added a welcome crunch.
Thai spring rolls. Yup, you may have had them at your local take-out place but these are the real deal. It’s been a while since I visited Thailand but I was instantly transported back by the light, chilled rolls filled with rice noodles and crisp vegetables and fragrant with mint and basil. One of my friends declared, “These are ridonculously good, no, make that ridonky-donculously good which is even better!” Whilst that may not be a grammatically correct statement it’s a pretty solid endorsement 😉
Street chicken wings with crisp fried garlic from the specials menu were succulent and crunchy. Cliché of course but they really were definitely finger lickin’ good. The wings were accompanied by a little bowl of potent sauce that was fiery with just enough acid to cut through the deep fried taste.
Spicy Thai basil minced chicken topped a bowl of snowy white rice and the (optional) warm runny egg yolk brought everything together. The chicken was crazy tender and so full of flavor.
I’m sure everyone has experienced takeout pad Thai, it’s often greasy with clumped-together noodles. That’s doing a disservice to pad Thai. Long Grain pad Thai is light years from your previous takeout experience. Slippery house-made noodles are toothsome, full of flavor and not at all greasy. In fact, you’d be wise to order extra to-go because you won’t have any leftovers.
The standout dish for me was Maine crab fried rice. Gratifying chunks of sweet crab meat were generously dispersed throughout the decadent fried rice. You can choose to put an egg on top, and why wouldn’t you? After much deliberation and chewing, one of my dining companions announced, “This rice is somehow…gentle” which sounds strange but was weirdly accurate. Cooling cucumber and a sweet crunch of onion added an extra dimension.
Portions are generous and most appetizers can easily be shared. Don’t miss out on the thoughtful sauces that accompany each appetizer. The room is fairly sparsely decorated, it’s almost like you’ve been invited into someone’s living room and they’ve borrowed a bunch of chairs from relatives. It will be interesting to see if the decor changes with the imminent move to a new larger space with attached Asian market. There are maybe 6 or 7 bar stools at the bar and 7-8 tables for 2-4 people (tables can be pushed together for larger groups). It’s ALWAYS wise to make a reservation even in the winter.
It can be tough to get through on the phone to make a reservation (the answer machine messages instructs you not to leave any messages but just to call back) and you should also be prepared to be told that your table is reserved for another customer 90 minutes after you sit down (this is not a place to linger over a 3 hour dinner) but it’s worth it for the food.
The atmosphere was lively with conversation and music. Is it a place for a romantic first date? No, probably not. But that’s because you’d want to wait until maybe date #5 when you’ve dropped the whole “nibbling on a salad” polite act and can slurp your noodles and lick the garlic-y chicken wing sauce that’s dribbling down your wrist.
On the drive home, content with full bellies, we contemplated our happy day in Camden, it was perfectly summed up with the statement, “It’s a really good job we don’t live closer to Long Grain or we’d be in trouble!”
Did I mention you should make a reservation? 🙂
Eat at: Long Grain
No website, but the daily specials are usually posted on the facebook page
31 Elm St, Camden, ME, 04843
207 236 9001
Hours: Tue- Sat 11:30am-3pm for lunch, 4:30-9:00pm for dinner (closed Sun, Mon)
***Note, a move to 20 Washington St for a bigger space and the addition of an Asian market is planned for 2016/17
Stay at: The Camden Harbor Inn
83 Bayview St, Camden, ME, 04843
207 236 4266