Langbaan literally means “back of the house” in Thai, and it’s also the name of a unique dining experience in Portland offering a Thai-inspired tasting menu in a tiny 24-seat space tucked behind another Thai restaurant.
And to be clear, it was my favorite meal of my recent vacation here.
Portland has a long history of secret supper clubs, what we mostly call pop-ups these days. Langbaan is probably its most popular at the moment, gaining national recognition and reviews for its Thai tasting menu from chef/owner Akkapong Earl Ninsom, who also owns the larger Paa Dee casual Thai street food restaurant that’s home to Langbaan.
A fixed $75 tasting menu (that changes every month) is the only option, and it’s served over two seatings a night from Thursday through Sunday. Reservations are highly recommended, and you might have better luck as a solo diner.
I dined on a Sunday night by myself, and it’s actually a great experience for a solo diner because you’re seated at one of the four stools at the chef’s counter with a front-row seat to all the action as the chefs prepare each course (typically 12 dishes).
So here are some of the reasons why this was one of my favorite meals in Portland:
- The bite-sized dishes captured the flavors of Southeast Asia in a complex but balanced way.
- The dishes are unique, not often seen at Thai restaurants – or even in Thailand today for that matter – because the chef focuses on royal Thai cuisine inspired by centuries-old recipes.
- The pacing was pretty fast for a tasting menu, going through the courses in about 90 minutes (as opposed to the two to three hours you sometimes sit through at other restaurants). Still, I never felt rushed.
- After dining at Pok Pok, my eyes toward Thai cuisine were open. At Langbaan, they just popped out over its elevated interpretation. I actually tweeted after dinner that I wanted to go to Thailand now.
So what’s the dinner like?
When I was at Langbaan, it was the last night of its May menu that was inspired by the flavors of the floating markets. If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, floating markets are literally people in boats selling fresh seafood or other produce from other people floating by on boats. Some of the freshest ingredients are found this way.
The evening started with three small bites, the first called miang som-O, a bite of pomelo (a citrus fruit similar to grapefruit) with shrimp, shallot, chili, lime and ginger served on a betel leaf. It was pretty in color and refreshing in flavor. That was followed by kanom krok, minced raw scallop blended with coconut cream, lemongrass, and galangal in a crispy rice cup that almost looked like a little tart.
The last bite was a lovely cured mackerel with herbs and cabbage, called miang plaa-tuu. (I was so busy Snapchatting and Instagramming my meal that I forgot to take a photo of this bite, but it was packed with flavor.)
Then we were served a soup called gang jued khai nahm, which was a clear broth poured over a Thai omelette with Dungeness crab, scallion, celery, longan (a fruit similar to lychee), and coconut meat. The delicate sweetness of the crab offset the very savory and funky broth. Some might think the broth is salty, but for some reason it just felt appropriate to me, really foreshadowing the funky flavors of fish sauce that underlies a lot of Southeast Asian cuisine.
Next course was a beautiful display of spotted prawns blended with asparagus, morel mushrooms, pineapple, mizuna and ikura. The prawn’s head had been cleaned and deep-fried. (Yes, I ate this deep-fried element, which provided the crunchy texture to the dish, since it was a small piece.)
I should note that the menu lists a lot of ingredients, but it’s not like one stood out more than the other. For example, I actually didn’t notice the pineapple in the prawn dish or the longan in the soup. All the ingredients are diced so small that they blend into each other, often creating that balanced flavor I mentioned earlier. It’s a sophisticated layering of flavors that make each dish enjoyable.
Then came a duck course called yum ped yang, with slices of Pekin duck with spring onions, ramp, black garlic and tamarind. The duck was nicely cook, simply served with the tamarind sauce.
Then the main dishes came out almost family-style with all the plates filling your dining space, including the gang yod maprao look chin plaa, a red curry dish with feather back fish balls, heart of palm and kaffir lime, and Snake River Farms pork jowl slices with a spicy sauce. A plate of relish of catfish and Chinese eggplant, called nahm prik plaa dook, was served with fresh greens and the entire meal was rounded out by a bowl of jasmine rice.
This was a smorgasbord of flavors and texture, from the heat from the red curry and accompanying sauce for the pork jowl slices, to the freshness of the greens that I wrapped around the catfish relish. My favorite was the curry, which looked so pretty in its amber hue. I kept spooning my rice into the bowl to get all the curry sauce.
The meal ended with two desserts, a tiny custard plate called kanom tuay, which is a layer of pandan (a popular leaf in Southeast Asia) topped with a layer of coconut cream. Then came a bowl of ice cream kati, with a scoop of smoked coconut sorbet (definite coconut taste but didn’t detect much smokey flavor) with fresh strawberries and puree and Thai basil granita.
Side note: Chef Ninsom and his main menu developer Rassamee Ruaysuntia didn’t seem to be working on the night I was there, but the menu was expertly presented by Chef Chris Leimena and two others.
The last bite
I have never been fond of Thai food because I often felt the dishes were too saucy or the curries too watery in the many Thai restaurants I ate in growing up. But thankfully several notable chefs are pushing the edge of what Thai food should be like as demonstrated in the popularity of restaurants like Pok Pok in Portland and Kin Khao in San Francisco. With Langbaan, this discourse is taken to a new level showing that Thai food can be refine and complex.
The rating: 3.5 out of 4 camera snaps
The deets: Langbaan, 6 SE 28th Ave., Portland (enter through Paa Dee restaurant). PH: 971.344.2564. Dinner only Thursday through Sunday with two seatings at 6 and 8:45 p.m. (5:30 and 8:15 p.m. on Sunday). Reservations recommended. Major credit cards accepted. langbaanpdx.com
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