Our trip to Maine included a few days in Camden, a picturesque town on Penobscot Bay. Long a summer playground for wealthy vacationers, the town’s notable cultural attractions include the Camden Opera House and the Camden International Film Festival. You can stroll along the couple of blocks of Main Street, tucking in and out of shops that range from run-of-the-mill souvenirs to high-end home furnishings and clothing. There are many options for sailing out onto the bay. If you want to do some hiking, there’s Mt. Battie and the higher Mt. Megunticook, both of which offer gorgeous views. And then there’s the food…
20 Washington Street
Long Grain is a much lauded, practically cult-status Thai restaurant in this tony coastal town. They’ve had coverage by The New York Times, Boston Globe, Bon Appetit, Saveur … you get the gist. The Times article, from 2012, starts by referencing Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, a truly cult-status Thai restaurant, and that Gourmet article by the late, great Jonathan Gold in which he called Lotus of Siam the very best Thai restaurant in America. Needless to say, Long Grain was on the top of my list of places to eat in Maine, and my expectations were very high.
We ordered too much, as we usually do when we finally get somewhere we’ve been wanting to go. For appetizers: pan fried garlic chive rice cakes with sautéed bean sprouts and northeastern style Thai beef (nua nam tok). For mains: wide rice noodles with sweet soy sauce stir-fried with greens and pork belly (pad seaw) and beef panang curry with roasted red peppers, bamboo shoots, and Thai basil. For dessert: coconut flan.
Nua nam tok matches spicy beef with refreshing herbs for a dish of diverse yet balanced flavors. The rice cakes were tasty, if a bit glutinous…and a bit oily.
The specialty curry was beef panang, a thick red curry with braised beef, topped with kefir lime leaves and Thai basil. The sauce is a profound marriage of flavors, including, among other things, chiles, lemongrass, and galangal, and is thicker and less sweet than iterations you might get elsewhere. It’s a lovely dish: rich, spicy, and nuanced.
The pad seaw with pork belly uses their signature house-made wide rice noodles. I couldn’t believe how thick the noodles were—unlike any others I’ve ever had. I actually found them too thick (though, admittedly, I lack the necessary experience to know if this is how they should be). I was also struck by the fact that the greens (kale) were practically whole they were so large. And the pork belly was sliced very thin, which detracted from the best qualities of the cut—tender meat, soft fat that crisps up when rendered. All in all, the taste was very pleasant, with notes of sweetness and acid as well as heat from sliced red chiles, but the texture of the noodles, the tougher-than-expected pork belly, and the size and relative unwieldiness of the greens detracted from the dish.
We finished the meal with the one dessert they make—coconut flan.
The restaurant itself is a wide-open space, airy and modern, just off Camden’s main drag. My husband and I marveled at how much empty space there was! There’s probably room in there to double the seating capacity. And given the number of people who want to eat here, I can hardly believe they don’t. And did you notice the dishes? An eclectic mix of dainty, floral, modern, and Asian. And there’s a small market to the side of the dining room where you can pick up some Thai/southeast Asian ingredients.
If I sound down on Long Grain, let me be clear that it is the best Thai food I have had on the east coast. I think they’re doing great things. They don’t seem to be changing their recipes for an audience they think will not be prepared for Thai food; rather, they are presenting the food in its full-flavored glory and trusting that the good people of (or, more likely, passing through) Camden will love it. The resounding verdict is that they do.
30 Main Street
Boynton-McKay is right in the middle of the short stretch of Camden’s touristy downtown. Opened in 1893 as a pharmacist shop, the space was transformed in 1999 into a restaurant serving breakfast and lunch. Boynton-McKay has impossibly high ceilings, loads and loads and loads of vintage charm, and a kitchen that offers lots of comfort classics. I loved this place the moment I walked in. You order at the counter in the back—the menu on a board above, some bakery items laid out before you, and a bustling prep area in full view—then grab a seat and wait. They make slow-roasted beef and pork that they use in things like tacos, sandwiches, Asian-flavored lettuce wraps, and burritos. They also have classic breakfast options, like eggs, hash, and French toast, and healthier plates, like steel-cut oatmeal and quinoa salad. Something for everyone. Oh, and they make bialys. That makes me happy. Go here.
We ordered a slow-roasted beef burrito, French toast, and a simple bacon and egg sandwich on an English muffin.
50 Elm Street
Just south of Camden’s main drag sits the Scottish pub Drouthy Bear, which is as cozy as can be. It’s only been open since 2015, but the combination of classic pub ambience and a charming antique home make it feel like it’s been there for much, much longer. The menu offers Scottish/English classics (Scotch egg, haggis, pasties, bangers and mash) and American standards (burgers, nachos, Caesar salad). The standout for us was the chicken tikka pie—mild yet flavorful chicken tikka masala beneath a blanket of flaky puff pastry. And since it’s a Scottish pub, there were lots of great beers on tap and a long menu of whisky. This is the kind of place you want to be when a cold wind blows in off Penobscot Bay, warming up, tucking into a shepard’s pie, and sipping something delicious.
31 Elm Street
Zoot Coffee is a very nice coffee shop just down from the center of town (where Main Street turns to Elm). I sure enjoyed their iced espresso, and the baristas were absolute dolls to my daughter. Looking for coffee in Camden? This place does not disappoint.