Oh, and were you thinking of scrolling through your Twitter feed while mindlessly shoving fork/spoonfuls into your face? Or perhaps just grabbing the to-go bag and taking off so you can do the same thing in front of your computer at home? Not so fast. Lam, the friendly seasoned barber turned recent restauranteur, who still cuts hair next door while coaxing his new restaurant onto Long Beach's radar, isn’t having it. His tiny four-seat counter-space is his formal dining room, and you are now his guest. “Come on, have some while it’s hot,” he says to me after I try to order my pad kee mao to go.
And really, he’s right. Cold pad kee mao misses the point entirely. The flat noodles gain their power from the hot slick oil and the residue of almost-carbon from a scorching wok. These particular noodles have a dark and smoky flavor that’s nicely offset by the almost obscene amount of vegetables that spill forth from their coils: not only the egg, carrot, peppers (green, red, and orange!), green bean, and Thai basil that’s listed on the menu, but also bamboo shoots, baby corn, Chinese broccoli, green onion, and straw mushrooms.
Lam brings me a Thai tea (“on the house”, he says) and sits down on the stool next to mine. I learn that he came to Long Beach in 1980 from Cambodia, and has been cutting hair next door for 30 years. He’d been renting the space in which I’m currently slurping noodles, but when he ran out of tenants, he decided to become his own landlord and open a restaurant. “It’s just a baby,” he keeps saying, pertaining to the restaurant. He says it apologetically as he explains to another customer that they don’t yet take credit cards. He says it hopefully as we talk about the dearth of Thai food in the area. And he says it proudly when I tell him how good his noodles taste and how I’m happy he made me eat them hot. I don’t get to tell him how thrilled I am that this $7.25 entree is just bursting with shrimp, and not just any shrimp, but shrimp that’s so amazingly textured that I can feel my teeth splitting each paper-thin layer of firm meat, pop by pop. I don’t get to tell him this because some regulars are walking in and he’s jumped up to enthusiastically encourage them to try some new dishes this time around. He's very persuasive, and they leave with a new curry and some chicken satay.
After we talk about Chicagoan deep dish pizza and the history of Thai, Cambodian, and Laotian food (“it’s all basically the same because of its Hindu roots”, he tells me and any other customer who wants to listen), we move on to the subject of the enormous startup costs of launching a restaurant. We talk about food trucks and food carts, both in Asia and in Long Beach. I tell him the story of the breakfast vendors in front of the main train station in Hefei, Anhui province, China, who run a lively business serving the crowds coming in waves from the trains in the morning, but who must disappear from the streets exactly at 9AM lest the daily police raid fine and sweep them away. He tells me that he recently saw the Long Beach PD strip a vendor of her cart and wares in the parking lot of the Northgate Gonzalez market across the street.
“Lots of grandparents have recipes that will die with them,” Lam reflects, and we sit together and think quietly about all the great cooks whose dishes will stay a secret since they can’t come up with the capital needed to start a restaurant, truck, or cart, or don’t want to take the time to weave through dense legalese.
There may be no danger of recipes dying without Tasty Food To Go - all of the offerings can be found on many other menus around town - but judging by the pad kee mao alone, Long Beach would be worse off without its unique approach to freshness, quality, and value.
(Tasty Food To Go is located at 2015 E 10th St Ste B in Long Beach, next to Lam's Barber Shop.)