At first glance, Larb Thai Food & Tapas looks like the type of Asian eatery that some immigrant kid with an MBA would conceptualize. Open for six weeks in an El Cerrito shopping plaza, the restaurant boasts a clean, modern decor, with artfully installed corrugated-metal on the walls and a kind of word-maze stenciled onto the window highlighting some of the foodstuffs you can expect to encounter during your meal: "BBQ," "Prawns," "Pork," "Garlic & Pepper," and so forth. The interior is almost unrecognizable in comparison to the series of short-lived, and rather shabby-looking, Chinese restaurants that previously occupied the space. And the accessible, all-English menu is (very loosely) organized around the trendy-five-years-ago conceit of "Asian tapas."
Were it not for the word "Larb" prominently displayed in bold red letters on the sign out front, you might mistake the place for one of those run-of-the-mill Asian-fusion spots. You would never guess that the restaurant specializes in the funky, sour, often tear-inducingly spicy cuisine of the Isaan region of Northeastern Thailand.
But once you take a closer look at the menu, and especially once the food starts to come out — an array of grilled meat skewers, pungent larb, and sticky rice — then it quickly becomes clear that the food is homier and more intensely flavorful than you might initially expect. If you are the kind of Thai food enthusiast who finds yourself constantly searching for the "real" — for a restaurant where the food isn't watered down but instead is served as spicy and funky as it's meant to be — well, Larb Thai Food & Tapas might soon be your new favorite spot.
The restaurant's owners are Ann Chan and her husband, Paul Chan, who hails from Isaan and is the main chef. The couple may or may not have an MBA between them (it seemed impolite to ask), but they have managed to open a restaurant that caters to American sensibilities without compromising on flavor.
Start with the larb section of the menu, which boasts six or seven varieties of the bright, lime-juice-spiked meat salad, including a couple of harder-to-find options — a chicken liver larb! — that are usually featured on the specials board. You can order the standard ground-meat version, but for something more luxurious, try the beef larb, which Chan makes with chewy slices of ribeye steak cooked medium, which added a rich, fatty element that was a delicious foil to the other larb ingredients — the lime juice, fish sauce, fresh mint, raw onion and shallot, chili powder, toasted rice powder (made in-house daily), and a particularly pungent kind of salted fish that Ann told me is unique to the Isaan style of larb. Be wary: If you order your larb "spicy," it will be really spicy. The "medium" level already tested the limits of my tolerance.
If you're ordering family-style, you may want to start your meal with a selection of meat skewers, which were the closest thing on the menu to anything resembling "tapas" — used here, in the most general sense, to refer to anything served in a small portion size. The options skew toward offal cuts, and I especially enjoyed the crisp-edged chicken liver and the fried pork intestine, both of which came glazed with a slightly sweet sauce. Don't miss the plump, Isaan-style fermented sausage, which was served pink in the middle, and so fatty that it burst when I bit into it.
More conservative eaters have plenty of options, too. The pork hock is a version of khao ka moo — pork leg slow-braised until the skin was luxuriously soft, drizzled with the sweet braising liquid, and served with a soy-sauce-braised egg over rice. It's the kind of homey rice bowl I could eat for lunch two or three times a week. The best part of the dish was a little tub of chili- and garlic-infused vinegar, whose bright heat cut into the fattiness of the meat.
Meanwhile, the Isaan-style roast chicken turned out to be a far more interesting option than I initially suspected. The half-chicken comes out well-charred, smoky, and deeply flavorful, thanks to its lemongrass and fish sauce marinade. You can eat this on its own with the accompanying tamarind dipping sauce — Paul's mother's recipe. But, as suggested on the menu, the chicken is best ordered with papaya salad and a basket of sticky rice. The Lao-style papaya salad we chose was intensely fiery and pungent, with additional funk and texture from the optional tiny black salted crabs, which we crunched on, shell and all. For the perfect bite, take a little ball of rice in your hand and use it as a utensil to scoop up some salad and some chicken.
It is one thing for a Michelin-starred chef like James Syhabout to bring these unvarnished Isaan flavors to Hawker Fare, bravely and unapologetically, as he has in recent years. The Uptown Oakland restaurant is perhaps the closest thing the cuisine has to a mainstream flag-bearer in this country. But it is quite another thing to serve this food in an unassuming strip mall in El Cerrito, without the benefit of a Michelin pedigree or, for that matter, a particularly large local Thai population, to get folks in the door.
So, when we asked our server — who turned out to be chef Chan himself — whether the soup for our Thai boat noodles had been thickened with pork blood, as is traditional, he answered with a sheepish head nod rather than a more prideful affirmative. How was he to know we wouldn't be squeamish about that?
The noodle section of the menu, incidentally, is another highlight at Larb Thai Food & Tapas, spanning lesser-known regional specialties from several different parts of Thailand — not just Isaan. Boat noodles, for instance, were originally sold from boats that traversed the canals of Central Thailand. The pork version at Larb Thai was chock-full of porcine goodness: pork balls, pork liver, and pieces of crunchy fried pork rind. But the murky, blood-thickened broth was what grabbed my attention — an intense combination of sour, spicy, savory, and sweet. At first taste, I thought I wouldn't like the sweetness, which Ann explained came from the blood and also the long-simmered daikon and celery in the pork broth; however, the liver and the pork rind provided just enough of an earthy and savory counterpoint. This was as flavorful a bowl of noodle soup as I have eaten in the East Bay.
The restaurant also serves a notable version of khao soi, a Northern Thai dish that you may recognize by its sweet and only mildly chili-tinged coconut-curry broth, and the tangle of crunchy deep-fried egg noodles on top. Larb Thai's version was all crunch; there weren't any of the chewy wheat noodles that you normally find in the dish, and not much chicken either — though neither fault made the dish any less compulsively eatable.
And I was fascinated by another dish I hadn't seen before, the dry tom yum noodles, which Ann told me was a popular street food dish she recalls eating when she was a kid growing up in Bangkok. Imagine thin, fresh rice noodles infused with the hot and sour flavors of tom yum soup, minus the soup — all that limey, dried chili powder-intensive punch, with some sweetness and fish-sauce funk. Add to that ground pork, pork liver, pork rinds, thinly sliced pork shoulder, fish balls, dried shrimp, and, for texture, a couple of large triangles of deep-fried wonton skin. Serve it with a bowl of clear, peppery broth on the side.
Like some suped-up alternative to pad Thai, the dish left my mouth tingling. It wasn't quite like anything I'd eaten before. Already, I'm planning out what I'll try during my next visit.