It is unfortunately easy to miss Manaow Thai, the 3-year-old project from mother-daughter team (and Long Beach locals) Nitaya and Parry Pungauthaikan. From the street, the small storefront often looks closed and empty, its sleek decor barely visible through lightly tinted windows every time I drive past the unassuming strip mall on Broadway in Belmont Heights.
But once in awhile, I see people dining at Manaow’s bistro tables perched outside on the small patio, and remember that not only is Manaow very much open (packed, even), but that it’s still one of my favorite Thai restaurants in Long Beach.
For starters, nothing about the menu or setting relies on cliché. Designed by a trendy New York architecture studio, the interior, though invisible from the street, instantly envelops you with high ceilings, long wooden tables and a geometric minimalism that spans from the white neon lights that hang above to the muted wall coverings.
The setting feels more like a vegan brunch bar than a Thai restaurant, but all the minimalism makes sense as soon as you see the food, which seems to pick up on flavor and intensity where all the pad Thai peddlers leave off.
Taking inspiration from the regional diversity of Bangkok’s intense street food scene, Manaow offers oddball curries (artichokes, anyone?), roasted duck a number of ways (the best is the ceviche-like larb) and street-style snacks wrapped in large tropical leaves (some available as weekday lunch combos!). Coconut milk makes its way into soups and marinades, as does chili paste, which coats catfish, accents tamarind eggs and hides in green papaya salads.
Like Spicy Sugar, Manaow is a clear creation of its second-generation owner (in this case, Parry). Yet, the millennial touch is more apparent here, not only in picturesque presentation and pretty plating, but in techniques and ingredients that might make her co-owner mother cringe. A brilliant, thick kao soi, for example, skips the traditional chicken-on-bone for fall-apart beef. Order the larb off the snacks side of the menu and it comes not as a salad-style pile, but deep fried in crabcake-sized pucks, which you pick up with pieces of crisp cabbage on the side.
The best representation of Manaow’s aesthetic is the restaurant’s one-of-a-kind drink sampler, a colorful flight of sipping portions of five popular Thai beverages. For $6, you get both the ubiquitous — Thai iced tea and Thai iced coffee, each perfectly sweetened with condensed milk — and the house specialties: tamarind juice, limeade with honey and lemongrass iced tea.
The tamarind has the same tartness as the Mexican agua fresca tamarindo, and it comes in a spice-rimmed glass, like a good michelada. The lemongrass iced tea is sweet enough to cut the herb’s more aromatic qualities without being too sugary. And the purple drink on the platter is actually limeade, sweetened with honey and infused with the leaves of the butterfly pea flower. The blue-tinted flower is imported dry from Thailand, and when mixed with water and limeade it somehow gives the restaurant’s signature drink (“manaow” means “lime” in Thai) a deep purple hue.
When your sampler is finished, pick your favorite and a regular-sized portion — included in the price. Just one more thing you’ll miss out on if you keep sleeping on Manaow.
3618 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 433–2574, manaowthai.com.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.