The first Thai dish I fell in love with was mee krob — which is also spelled mee grob, mi krop and probably a dozen other ways. But mee krob does just fine.
It was at a Thai-Chinese restaurant in East Hollywood, back in the day when all Thai restaurants were Chinese as well. I decided it was one of the best things I’d ever eaten — a brain-melting combination of sweet, spicy and crispy, a dish that approached the Platonic ideal. I soon added chicken satay to my growing diet of Thai dishes, probably because though I liked chicken on skewers, I couldn’t get enough of Thai peanut sauce. Still can’t.
And then, I went to Bangkok. And discovered that mee krob — a ubiquity on menus here — is rarely served there. As one restaurateur explained to me, “It’s a very difficult dish to make. It takes three days to get it right. Very few cooks can manage it. You should try the pad Thai noodles. Everyone can make them. And they’re just as good.”
I don’t know about “just as good.” They’re good…very good. But it’s mee krob that owns my heart. Or at least my stomach. And honestly, I don’t know what it is that we eat over here. But whatever our mee krob is, it sure is good.
I also discovered in Bangkok that mee krob came with a backstory. Seems that in the late 1800s, Siamese King Rama V went by barge to visit his subjects, stopping in the market district of Talad Phlu, where he caught a whiff of a dish being cooked in the market by a Chinese immigrant named Chi Lin. The king decided he had to taste it — and he brought the recipe back to the palace where, no surprise, it became a favorite of everyone who tasted it because the king…you know.
The name he gave it translates simply as “crisp noodles.” Which pretty much cuts to the chase. But it’s also so much more than that. The noodles are ultra-thin, looking like a bird’s nest sweetened and spiced, with crunchy bits of meat lurking within. It’s like an edible treasure hunt. And it stays crispy for a long time. Perhaps forever since it has never really lasted long enough in my refrigerator to find out.
I should add, it’s not King Rama’s only accomplishment. He also established the Thai Royal Naval Academy. And abolished slavery. Amazing that he had the time, since he had 96 wives and concubines. (I have one. She keeps me very busy. I can’t imagine 96.)
That said, we are blessed with a wealth of Thai restaurants. And not all of them serve mee krob — though it’s easy to find chicken satay and pad Thai and all sorts of other dishes worthy of culinary obsession. I happily search it out. I loved it then. And I love it now. Greater praise than that for a dish, I don’t know.
Aki Sushi Bar & Bai Plu Thai Restaurant
1626 E. 7th St., Long Beach, 562-436-3123; Bai Plu Thai & Sushi Bar, 2119 N. Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, 562-343-2651; www.baipluthai.com
This dynamic duo is the restaurant equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup — a combination of two of my favorite things in one pretty foil wrapper. I’ve loved sushi since the 1970s — at about the same time that those in the know began flocking to Jitlada in Hollywood for noodles and spice.
Putting the two cuisines together under one roof is an act of kindness and generosity; it saves us from having to choose between one or the other. You can have your sushi rolls and your noodles, without feeling deprived. If you’re here for the sushi, this is a hot spot to go for the deep-fried jalapeño stuffed with spicy tuna and cream cheese called a Jalapeño Bomb.
There are more than 40 exotic special rolls — like the Playboy Roll, shrimp tempura, avocado and cucumber topped with tuna, “crunchy flakes” and eel sauce. There’s a Rocky Roll, a Sweet Girl Roll, a Lakers Roll and a Godzilla Roll. Fun!
And then, there are two pages of Thai dishes referred to as “The Wild Things.” Why some dishes are “Wild Things,” while others are “appetizers” is a bit of a mystery — except the apps seem to be smaller than the wilds. I think. And though I understand the beef jerky and pork jerky, both properly spicy Thai dishes being wild, the wildness of orange chicken and honey duck is a puzzle.
There are several chow meins, for those in need of a Chinese dish to mix with the Thai and Japanese. There are nine soups (including a chop suey soup, which is…what?), and 12 salads — not one of which is a Caesar salad, and no apparent use of kale — so things don’t go that far.
Of course, there’s mee krob at both, perfectly prepared, a mix (as the menu tells us) of “crispy rice noodles marinated with special sweet tangy sauce, topped with shrimp, chicken, green onion, red pepper and bean sprouts, all for $11.99. I’m happy with the mee krob all by itself. But that’s me.
This is a great restaurant when no one is sure what they want — because short of a hamburger, they’ll probably find it here. At least, I couldn’t find a hamburger on the menu — but it could be hiding somewhere. The eyes do glaze over after a while.
Elephant Thai Kitchen
2087 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach; 562-513-3015, elephantthaikitchen.com
No, they don’t serve pachyderm at Elephant Thai Kitchen. But you will find mee krob listed under “noodle dishes” — along with pad Thai, rad naa, pad ew see, kai kua, chow mein and the wonderfully named Drunken Noodles. It’s properly called mee krob tad naa, and is elegantly described as, “crispy egg noodle, topped with superb gravy sauce of shrimp, chicken, straw mushrooms and vegetables.”
Straw mushrooms are a lovely touch. So, for that matter, is the use of the word “superb.” And of “gravy” for that matter. Wonderful food — and a very talented menu writer.
555 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; 562-495-5988, www.nareethailongbeach.com
Some menus list mee krob under “noodles.” In the case of this harbor-adjacent Siamese, the mee krob is found among the “appetizers” — along with the crispy spring rolls, the chicken and beef satay, the curry puffs, the angel wings and the golden fish cakes.
And it’s meatless, which works just fine — though for me, tofu is never quite as appealing as the more common shrimp and chicken found in most mee krobs. In this case, it’s made with crispy noodles (of course), “crispy” egg, red bell peppers and the aforementioned tofu. The excellent flavoring makes up for the lack of meat. And the egg is a nice addition — it’s not so much “crispy” as it is browned. Which is fine with me. I’m very egg-o-centric.
13019 Rosecrans Ave., Norwalk; 562-921-2124
Norwalk is more than a bit off the usual beaten path. But then, this ultra-spicy Thai is one of the most respected, revered, cult object dining destinations around — a shrine for what’s long been much respected as the sine qua non of Thai cooking in Thai-intensive Southern California.
It’s been described as “a shrine,” and I can’t argue with that — a shrine in a distant strip mall, that does little to call out to you. Trust me, it’s worth it, especially for its Isan specialties.
The mee krob appears, once again, under “appetizers,” and is minimalistically described as “crispy noodle mixed with sweet and sour sauce, chicken and shrimp.” Which it is. But it’s also so much more.
There are those who have been known to drive hundreds of miles to eat here. As they say in Michelin, it’s worth the drive. And worth every bite as well.
Oh, and while you’re there, the fried chicken dumpling rock. Ditto the koong sarong — shrimp in a blanket. And the nue dad deaw — deep-fried salted beef jerky, Isan style, can change your life.
Thai on Main
117 Main St., Seal Beach; 562-598-7030, www.thaionmain.com
Well, one good nearby journey for mee krob deserves another, this time to the adjacent south, where Thai on Main is found on — yes! — Main Street in nearby Seal Beach. And once again, the mee krob is found on the “appetizer” menu, where it’s the second dish, right under fresh spring rolls.”
This ultra-tasty version splits the difference between vegetarian and non, with chopped chicken and tofu sharing the plate — and the crispy fired thin noodles.
The next dish down is the Thai beef jerky, another Isan recipe, served with a “tangy fiery chili-lime sauce.” “Tangy” and “fiery”? I love it without even taking a taste — what could be better than that?