Apiquant Thai salad can be crowned with a mound of seared steak, green papaya, or barbecued shrimp. All are delicious. But branch out and go for larb, a simple salad of minced meat and roasted ground rice combined with fresh herbs, a scattering of vegetables, and the Thai trinity of fish sauce, lime juice, and chilies. This dish, which crept across the border from Laos, is one by which you can measure any northern Thai restaurant.
Thai Nakorn Restaurant, perhaps the pinnacle of Thai dining in Orange County, prepares four distinct versions, including a seafood larb as sharp and citric as any ceviche. Still, Thai Nakorn’s pork larb may better suit those unfamiliar with the dish: ground pork flecked with crunchy bits of toasted rice, slivers of red onion, fresh mint leaves, lemongrass, cilantro, and green onion. It’s a bracing dish, addictively tart and acidic. A bit too much pucker? There’s fresh cabbage on the side to cleanse the palate.
Siam Taste of Asia simplifies its larb offerings: Chicken and beef are your only options. The ingredients are fundamentally the same as in Thai Nakorn’s, but the chicken larb here is still one to seek out. The chicken itself isn’t so finely minced, resulting in a meatier, less uniform texture. The flavor sings with citrus and is supported by an ample scattering of mint. It’s the kind of combination that can turn any day into a sunny one.
At Vientiane Thai Laos, larb reconnects with its Laotian roots. The restaurant serves what may be the most traditional versions of the dish. Try the fish larb: fish chopped so finely it nearly becomes a paste that then is mixed with the traditional ingredients, along with lemongrass, and a gingery kick of galangal. For a full taste of Laos, pair it with an order of crisp pork sausages.
Thai Nakorn Restaurant
12532 Garden Grove Blvd., Garden Grove, 714-583-8938
11951 Beach Blvd., Stanton, 714-799-2031, thainakornrestaurant.com
Siam Taste of Asia
3520 W. First St., Santa Ana, 714-418-9678
Vientiane Thai Laos
10262 Westminster Ave., Garden Grove, 714-530-7523
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.