No matter where you go in Thailand – be it a beach resort, mountain village or Bangkok bus station – it is hard to cross the street without stumbling into a food stall. In every corner of the country, vendors hawk steaming bowls of noodle soup, sweet sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and spicy curries in plastic bags.
Here in British Columbia, it is not so easy to find authentic Thai street food – unless you live in New Westminster, where Longtail Kitchen opened last summer in the newly revitalized River Market at Westminster Quay. Bright and cheerful, the counter-service eatery has an open kitchen, seating for about 25 people and garage-door windows that open up to a boardwalk patio on the Fraser River.
Owner Angus An describes the fare as "quick and easy Thai fisherman comfort food." In my opinion, that hardly does justice to his clear hot-and-sour noodle soup bursting with the clean crispness of Asian celery, or his comforting Salt Spring Island mussels swimming in a perfectly balanced creamy green curry.
Mr. An, who also owns the multiple award-wining Maenam restaurant, is one of Vancouver's most talented chefs. Longtail is a casual departure for the young restaurateur, but one with ambition. Mr. An is already selling several spice mixtures, chili oils and sauces in a retail section of the restaurant and plans to roll out a larger line of signature products, similar to Vij's fresh and frozen ready-made meals.
The dishes here are simpler than at Maenam, but prepared with same attention to detail. Restaurant chef Justin Cheung makes fresh curries from scratch each morning (an effort rarely found in Thai market stalls any more).
The kitchen offers obscure regional specialties such as the Chang Mai style chicken curry egg noodles, a mild Persian-inspired dish from Northern Thailand with succulent, subtly sweet chicken thighs that fall off the bone after being slowly simmered in coconut cream, fresh turmeric and palm sugar.
Thailand's extensive Chinese influences show up in pork belly stir-fried with gai-lan greens and oyster sauce, and the smoky wok-whispered pad si u (wide rice noodles) with beef, crushed garlic and sour chili vinaigrette.
Other delicious rarities include the boldly mentholated holy basil minced pork with a fried egg on top (the yolk and rendered pork fat lend the rice a most unholy silky sensuousness). Or the crispy chicken wings lightly battered in a cornstarch slurry and addictively seasoned with salt, sugar, chili powder and fried shallots.
Longtail takes a few shortcuts. The fascinatingly gummy fish balls in thick green curry are sourced from Hon's Noodle House. The kitchen uses canned coconut cream rather than fresh. And the handmade roti, deep-fried and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, comes from a supplier in Richmond.
And the restaurant is not exactly easy to get to if you're coming from Vancouver. But it does make a lovely day trip. Go take a class in the circus school upstairs, browse the terrific mid-century modern furniture shop on the main floor, order a few dishes at Longtail and retreat to the patio to watch the sun set over the tugboats.
It's not the Mekong River, to be sure. But it's still enticingly exotic.