Dining

Tongue Thai-ed

Portland's Langbaan is a one-of-a-kind Thai food experience

Just pull the meat grinder. Sure. Just pull the meat grinder next to the bookshelf on the back wall of a restaurant called PaaDee in Southeast Portland, and the bookshelf will swing open, granting you entry to restaurant-within-a-restaurant Langbaan.

It's a weird little setup that makes perfect sense for Langbaan, a thrice-weekly, boundary-pushing prixe-fixe dinner ($45 to $65) in the semisecret back room of PaaDee, a reliable favorite for everyday Thai fare. We'd call it a pop-up, but that's not entirely accurate, given its permanence. It's more of a studio, where owner Akkapong "Earl" Ninsom and chef Rassamee Ruaysuntia can explore the traditions and nuances of regional Thai cuisine, while taking advantage of the lush Pacific Northwest ingredients they're surrounded by.

Ruaysuntia spent two years cooking at Nahm in Bangkok, widely regarded as the world's best Thai restaurant. She's from Northeastern Thailand, but is fascinated by foods from further afield, drawing inspiration from ancient royal cookbooks and family recipes. Bangkok native Ninsom wanted to give her space to play with dishes that go beyond what he can offer on the regular PaaDee menu. "I realized we could actually use her knowledge and skill to do real Thai food," he says.

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The set menu changes monthly, each time centered around a different region. Recently the focus was on the Songkhla province, in the deep south, near Malaysia. The food there carries Muslim influences, and takes full advantage of Southern Thailand's sprawling coastline to incorporate plenty of fresh seafood. It's also really, really spicy, something Langbaan tempers a bit when they take it on.

"People aren't as familiar with Southern Thai food, so we have to be careful," says Ninsom. "We try to choose dishes that are interesting but still appealing."

That could mean a sweet-hot yellow curry studded with plump sea scallops, hearts of palm and chewy dates, or a deeply savory nahm prik, a pounded relish of chilies, fragrant herbs, smoked trout and fresh shrimp with thin shards of chewy candied beef. At their core, these are home-style dishes, but at Langbaan they're gussied up and presented as something wholly new to most, even those well-versed in Thai cuisine.

One dish that doesn't need much explanation is the gai todd Hat Yai (see the recipe), a.k.a fried chicken made like they do in Hat Yai (a city in Songkhla). It's a common sight all across Southern Thailand: Street vendors with giant vats of frying oil strapped to their motorbikes proffering deeply spiced, double-fried chicken parts to passersby on the side of the road. "It takes me back to my childhood, when we'd go visit my grandmother in the South," says Ninsom. "One of our cooks recently made it for family meal, and I remembered just how good it tastes. We had to put it on the menu."

While the chicken's place on Langbaan's menu may not be permanent, it's earned a lasting slot in our recipe rotation. And the beauty of the constantly changing menu is that by next month, we're willing to bet that Ninsom and Ruaysuntia will have a new favorite for us, too.

Langbaan 6 S.E. 28th Ave Portland OR 97214 971-344-2564

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