milwaukee: long cheng noodle & grill, laab kom (bitter laab)
Grace thought for a bit before answering, “Just a little.”
I was sitting down with my son and searching for a way to keep him occupied. I wipe the sweat from his nose as clings to me in the 90 degree heat and try to find a spot where a quick blow from the wind might make the room just a bit more comfortable. Earlier as we had made our way through the old car repair shop turned Asian market, moving past the wood and wire racks covered with DVDs and bright colored clothes, I questioned my grip on time and place. If not for a passing word, I probably would not have ventured here to Milwaukee’s Asian Market.
Long Cheng Noodle and Grill sits, unmarked in the back corner of the market just a few feet from a vendor selling fresh produce. Across the way Sister’s Cafe (haus diej kua txiv laaj sab kawg) sells bubble tea and bánh mì; but the line is clearly building in front of Long Cheng.
Grace sits down after ordering and starts wiping the table. The television above flashes with classic kitschy karaoke videos. Despite the line, food comes out quickly. First the sausage and a stuff chicken wing.
Hoping the spice will help in the heat, I plunge the sausage in the chili sauce. It’s delicious but it doesn’t help. I taste fish sauce and a slight bitterness from the peppers. This is my first clue that Long Cheng’s understands all five tastes (sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami), even the oft neglected bitter.
Next comes the phở – the ‘special’ bowl, filled with a mishmash of toppings including sliced beef balls, shrimp, imitation crab and bits of roasted pork. I hang my head over the sweet steam and dig in. More sweat – it cools for only a few moments. The taste of clove and anise lingers.
Grace and I scramble to give the baby bits of food to eat hoping to keep him entertained as we finish our meal. Finally the beef laab (ລາບ) arrives. Ordering laab is a bit like ordering a mystery salad; laab simply means chopped or minced and so recipes for this ‘salad’ vary throughout Laos and northern Thailand (though it is the national dish of Laos). Other than the minced meat, it seems the only other requirement are the few accompanying raw vegetables (see lettuce).
At Long Cheng, the beef laab – filled with bits of tripe, beef, green onion, pepper, and cilantro – is a fine mix of textures – crunches with each bite. The spice leaves a slow burn which creeping up with each bite. But it is the bitter that punches first. When we ordered, we asked for the beef to be cooked. Laab may have the similar origins as steak tartare – raw meat with onions; while tempting, we thought it best not to order it raw given the baby might want to try some. Ironic (moronic?). But we thought we’d try it ‘a little bitter’. Perhaps a ‘little’ was lost in translation. Bitter permeated every bite with an almost unnatural medicinal sting. It is somewhere between biting into a raw bitter melon and chug of pure quinine. That’s not to say it’s not delicious (but you do have to like bitter… at least a little). [editor note - most people should ask for it NOT BITTER]
After finishing the laab, I wondered about the bitterness. Where did it come from? As it turns out, bile is traditionally added to the laab for that bitterness. But is that what they used here? I asked the man taking orders what they used to make the laab bitter. He said he didn’t know and would ask the kitchen. Out came a women who could only tell us they buy it in a can and add it. So I went into the market and asked around. Finally a women knew where to find what I was looking for – there it was, on the bottom rack of the freezer – beef bile.
Just one question… do you cook bile before adding it?
Long Cheng Noodle & Grill
Milwaukee’s Asian Market
6300 N 76th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53218
Some interesting links about the market:
- The Neighborhood Project: Havenswood – Milwaukee’s Asian Market
- Journal Sentinel: Market on city’s northwest side aims to serve growing Hmong community