Regional plates from this week’s District:
PHOTO by ROSHEILA ROBLES
Like orange chicken and the California roll before it, pad Thai has been folded right into the American appetite, a dish so popular it’s now the barometer by which many measure all those Thai restaurants copied and pasted into every overbuilt strip mall. Consume enough of the stuff and you’ll be able to spot a hackneyed rendition from across the room: a wet mess drowned in a sauce as shockingly red as ketchup. But pad Thai only weeds out the worst Americanized Thai food—there isn’t a single dish that does the same for Thailand’s countless regional cuisines.
In Long Beach’s corner of the county, the dishes of northeastern Thailand reign. Influenced by the porous culinary borders shared with Laos and Cambodia, northeastern Thailand’s cuisine is distinct from its central and southern counterparts. And as a result, even after decades of snowballing popularity, its flavors are still sometimes too foreign to assign only one representative plate. At Cerritos’ Thai Issan, for example, the defining dish is sai krok, a slightly sour pork sausage lit up by galangal, kaffir lime leaf and lemon grass. Norwalk’s venerable Renu Nakorn, meanwhile, is best when under the influence of the heavy scent of jackfruit curry. Tantalizingly Thai in Lakewood, however, isn’t as easily encapsulated.
Given its location (in the rolled-back shadow of the Long Beach Town Center Walmart) and its unfortunate name (no explanation necessary), Tantalizingly Thai could be confused for one of those restaurants that relies on pad Thai. But if the space itself isn’t proof enough of something better—a tasteful display of maroon, green and yellow—then the menu surely is. Tantalizingly Thai delivers a number of well-executed northeastern dishes.
There aren’t any overstuffed links of sai krok or fleshy jackfruit curries here, but the rest of the staples are represented: larb, som tam, nam tok and all the salad-like dishes required to claim a connection to northeastern Thailand. Because of their shared heritage, many of these plates rely on similar flavors, including a prominent heat that’s amplified by the acidic sting of lime juice and red onion.
Larb is probably the most ordered of the half-dozen specialties—ground meat (either chicken, pork or beef) tossed with lime juice, cilantro, mint, red onions and chili flakes. You can cut the spice with a scoop of rice, but the larb smolders with the most pleasant kind of burn. It’s more complex than some half-hearted versions, too, with a notable helping of mint deployed to naturally cut the heat.
Nam tok (a salad of sirloin, ground rice and the now-familiar flavors of lime juice, lemon grass and the like) and som tam (shredded green papaya studded with tomatoes and shrimp) make up the next most popular northeastern options. But don’t ignore the yam woon sen, which cooks up shrimp and ground pork with glassy bean thread noodles.
Even though those northeastern dishes primarily define Tantalizingly Thai’s regional focus, the restaurant doesn’t limit itself to those meals alone. The place also serves a worthwhile massaman curry, an Indian-style sauce built from ingredients that rarely find any room in Thai cooking: coriander, cumin and cardamom, among others. Beef is the prominent option, but the curry is available with almost every protein, including lamb and duck, both of which make a nice break from the usual chicken and pork routine.
Despite the fact that Tantalizingly Thai cordons off its regional dishes with a separate section on its menu, the restaurant nevertheless has to deal with pad Thai preconceptions. And that dish is indeed offered here, as are pad see ew, barbecued chicken and all the other expected offerings. But none of those diminish the restaurant’s regional cooking, which, limited as it may be, forms a whole bloc of excellent options.
TANTALIZINGLY THAI 11401 CARSON ST | LAKEWOOD 90715 | 562.860.6108 | TANTALIZINGLYTHAI.COM | OPEN TUES-THURS 11AM-9PM | FRI 11AM-10PM | SAT NOON-10PM | SUN NOON-9PM | FOOD FOR TWO $20-40