PORTLAND — It is late fall in Longfellow Square. The leaves have dropped, the grass is brown, flowers are frosted and dead.
At least there’s ramen, genuine ramen. It’s at Pai Men Miyake, and it’s served all day and late into the night. The rich broth is made from the bones, meat, and fat of guinea hens and Berkshire pigs. After a day of simmering it is ready to be studded with sliced pork belly, fresh noodles, seaweed, and boiled egg, and ladled into ceramic bowls. This is heavy soup in heavy bowls to wrap your hands around, to hunch over slurping, to take off the chill.
Much has been made of Maine’s local food culture — the farm to table restaurants, the meadmakers and cheesemakers, the heirloom everything. There has been a lot less hype about the ethnic restaurants, many of which serve delicious, carefully made food — true to this mother’s kitchen or that night market vendor’s street cart. It is great food, but, until recently, with the exception of a handful of sushi bars, the exotic restaurants were lacking in atmosphere and service and everything else that makes a restaurant worth going to. With boring beer and wine lists, buzz kill lighting, and orchestral pop songs, they were better for lunch than for a big night out.
Now, three places have given far-away flavors a new sense of place: Pai Men Miyake; Boda, a Thai tapas and skewer bar across the street; and Long Grain, Asian street food and home cooking a couple of hours up the coast in Camden. They serve food that Mainers used to have to travel a long way for, and they do it with local ingredients and they do it in style.
At midnight on a Sunday night, the dining room at Boda is packed with Portland’s line cook, pastry chef, and waitress crowd. Just out of work and ready to rumble, they crowd around the bar and sit on satin cushions around reclaimed teak tables.
They drink tropical cocktails — Singapore Slings and Mai “Thai’s.’’ They feast on all manner of the spicy, sour, salty, and sweet: Thai chicken wings; Woon-Sen Pat Thai, the familiar stir-fried noodles wrapped in a Thai omelet; Miang Kum Sum-oh, pummelo fruit salad on betel leaves with toasted coconut, peanut, lime, ginger, shrimp, and shallots in a sweet palm sugar dressing; Kanom-krok, quail eggs seasoned with soy and scallions; and sweet sticky rice pudding with coconut cream poured over the top.
It’s warm in the room — there is pine and oak on the walls and radiant heat under the oak and concrete floors. On Sundays, all food on the late night menu is half off. The chef owners, Danai Sriprasert and Nattasak Wongsaichua, nicknamed Dan and Bob, are in the kitchen until last call, which in Portland comes at one in the morning.
Boda is a combination of their nicknames. The partners are from northern Thailand and came to Portland by way of Seattle. They opened Boda in February with general manager Katie Boone, who with endless patience sets just the right mood for the front of the house. “We wanted to take the Asian restaurant out of its typical giant menu and giant portions and lots of takeout business Americanized box,’’ says Boone, “to serve Thai food, but to do it in a way that makes sense for Portland.’’
Across the street, the lunch crowd at Pai Men Miyake is spread out around the long and lean dining room. They sit in the hushed shadows at the pine noodle bar and at tables in the clear, shadowless light that pours into the room all day long. The restaurant opened in September but is already filled with regulars. Chef Masa Miyake also owns Miyake, a sushi hollow around the corner, and has created a serious following for his nontraditional yet distinctively Japanese food.
The devotees eat ramen. They eat pork buns — roasted pork belly inside pillowy steamed buns topped with spicy Kewpie mayonnaise and pickled cucumber. They eat pork and cabbage gyoza and raw beef salad with daikon radish, yuzu jalapeno dressing, and peanuts. They drink sake and beer. For dinner service, the lunch menu expands to include the best of what is in season: live scallops in the shell, perfect Brussels sprouts, super sweet carrots, monkfish liver, tiny Maine shrimp.
By early evening the traffic along Route 1 in Camden has quieted to nothing and the town feels small again. Long Grain has been open since noon. Chef-owner Ravin (Bas) Nakjaroen is all over the kitchen, working eight pans at a time: woks full of pad see ew, house-made wide rice noodles with sweet soy sauce stir-fried with greens and either local chicken tofu or pork; iron crocks bubbling with pork and tofu Sukiyaki; kettles of stock, of foraged wild mushrooms and local mussels in coconut milk curry.
Nakjaroen is cooking for takeout orders and for the small crowd of early birds at the bar. He is getting ready for the dinner rush when the subway car of a restaurant will be packed with townspeople who can’t quite believe that they are eating this kind of Asian food in their tourist town on the coast of Maine.
Nakjaroen and his wife, Paula Palakawong, opened Long Grain in September. They both grew up in Bangkok, and met in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where they worked in restaurants for years, and eventually opened The Four Rivers Contemporary Thai Kitchen, which was a semifinalist for a James Beard award in 2008. Last year they came to Maine. The food at Long Grain is as intricate and personal as the best home cooking, but Nakjaroen and Palakawong are experienced restaurant people who have eaten around the world, and so everything is refined, confident and consistent.
It is a surreal and singular experience to walk through cold, foggy Camden and into Long Grain where it is warm and steamy and smells like ginger and star anise. This is where a young cook is making the food he knows best — food from halfway around the world but with ingredients found in the hills and the harbor right outside the door.
Jonathan Levitt can be reached at www.jonathanlevitt.com.