75 Second Avenue, New York NY 10003 (b/n 4th and 5th; map); 212-505-9533; zabbelee.com
Service: Friendly, willing to listen to your heat level requests
Setting: Very comfortable, aside from the odd front doors
Must-Haves: Som tum, larb, kra pao moo korb
Cost:Most dishes $4 to $9, whole fish $14
I'm not one for suspense, so I'll give it up right away: Zabb Elee has easily the best Isan Thai food in Manhattan.
A couple weeks back, Serious Eats Drinks editor Maggie mentioned that Le Da Nang, the East village Thai spot, had just been converted to a Manhattan branch of Zabb Elee, a popular Queens Isan Thai restaurant. Preliminary reports of takeout seemed promising. About a week later, I received a hastily written email from Harold Dieterle, Chef at Kin Shop, and authority on Thai cuisine.
zabb elee on 2nd ave & 4th Pretty legit issan food....menu is a bit limited...the salads are really good. Pork larb & green papaya were legit thai spicy.
Traditional Isan food in Manhattan? If this panned out, it would mean that I'd no longer have to endure long 7 Train journeys out to SriPraPhai or href="http://newyork.seriouseats.com/2011/03/sripraphai-vs-chao-thai-best-thai-in-nyc-woodside-elmhurst-queens.html">Chao Thai in Queens to get my Som Tum fix. We decided to do a thorough exploration of all corners of their menu, bringing along Harold Dieterle for his expert opinion. And we left greatly impressed.
Just a quick glance at the menu and you can tell you're in for something serious here. Light and spicy salads and appetizers like green papaya Som Tum, shallot and celery Yum, and ground meat Larb make up the bulk of the appetizer section, with a few grilled meat Yang thrown in. Crispy fish stir fries, sour pork sausages, and pork belly dominate the specials, while some rice dishes and noodle soups fill out the rest of the menu.
What's perhaps even more conspicuous is what's not on the menu. Don't bother looking for the Pad Thai or curries—you won't find them. The chef, formerly of Poodam's in Astoria, rightfully puts the focus on the fiery and pungent Laotian-style dishes of Northeastern Thailand that he specializes in.
The space is comfortable and well-appointed for what could be a simple, inexpensive takeout joint, and the service put the famous Thai friendliness in the spotlight. Waiters are attentive to the needs of those with palates unaccustomed to the intense flavors of authentic Thai food, but with no hand-holding. If you want hot food, you'll get hot food.
Meals start out strong with Som Tum ($8), the traditional Isan salad of shaved green papaya pounded in a large mortar and pestle with tomato, fish sauce, limes, and plenty of fresh chilis. You can order the dish with anywhere from 2 chilis—a mild, slow-building burn—up to 10—burn-your-face-off hot.
We had the "Thai" version with peanuts and tiny dried shrimp; though for more hardcore tastes, you might opt for salted preserved whole crabs, pickled fish, or a half dozen other variations.
Even at level three spiciness, a few of us had trouble downing more than a few bites at a time. "This stuff is legit Thai spicy," said Harold, and coming from the man who makes an incendiary duck larb over at Kin Shop, we trust him.
The chicken version of the ground meat salad Larb ($9), dressed with fish sauce and lime, has got plenty of aromatic herbs and none of the cloying sweetness that plagues many restaurants' versions. It's heavily spiced with dry chile and toasted glutinous rice and available in eight different flavors including Tub Wan (pork liver) or Moo Korb (crisply fried pork belly).
Hot appetizers were nearly as impressive. Made with equal parts sticky rice and pork and flavored with aromatic lemongrass and kaffir lime, sharp galangal, and a hint of coriander root, Sai Kroog Esan ($6) are fresh Isan-style sausages allowed to ferment for several days under refrigeration. The result is a distinct sourness that comes from the fermentation of carbohydrates in the sticky rice. Zabb's had great flavor but were slightly overcooked, coming out more dry and crumbly than moist and sticky like they should be.
The Kai Jiaw ($6), on the other hand, were the real deal. "These are really authentic," explained Harold. "They're supposed to have this texture—crisp and fluffy." Try to imagine making a French omelet and doing every single thing wrong, and you're pretty close. Cooked in plenty of oil in a wok over very high heat, they get cooked through with crisp, bubbly, deeply browned exteriors. You've got to eat them fast before they start to cool and turn rubbery. Ours came flavored with pickled garlic, though a sweet radish and pork version are also on the menu.
The single greatest bite of food I've had in Thailand was the Kor Moo Yang from a vendor in Bangkok's Saphan Phut night market. Crisply grilled fatty pork neck in a sweet marinade that chars over open coals, with a sauce of fresh lime juice, garlic, and dried chile peppers. The Moo Yang at Zabb Elee, made with tender pork shoulder and almost as nicely charred, comes awfully close to bringing me back there.
Soups at Zabb Elee are made to be shared. Served in large communal bowls, they come in either Toam Zabb—flavored with dry chili—or Toam Yum—flavored with fresh chili and tomato—varieties. All are $9. Easily enough to feed 2 to 3 people with plenty of heat and a sour, herbaceous aroma, these are bowls of soup to be reckoned with.
"I like how the pig's foot is cooked down to just gelatin like this," said Harold as he sucked the tender meat off of a pig's knuckle in the pork leg version. Don't have a foot fetish? No worries—it also comes in spare rib or chicken form.
"New York is full of what I call Chinese Thai places," explained Harold, as we move on to the stir fries. "Places that cook Chinese-style stir fries with a few Thai ingredients and flavors thrown in." In reality, Thai and Chinese stir-fries are built on different foundations. While Chinese stir-fries rely on high heat to achieve wok hei, the elusively smoky seared flavor, and build dishes based on multiple ingredients that maintain their identity, Thai stir-fries generally use lower heat and are based on the layering of flavors, starting by infusing oil with aromatics, and finishing with fresh herbs.
Take the Pad Ped Moo Korb ($8), for example. Flavored with wild ginger, fresh green peppercorns, and a spicy curry-like paste made from coriander root, chilis, shallots, and lemongrass, it arrives at the table with an intense aroma that only picks up as you start to eat. The Moo Korb version generally comes with pork belly, but the cook was happy to oblige us when we asked for duck in its place alongside the crisp, seedy green Thai eggplants.
Kra Pao ($9) is a dish that often suffers badly in the hands of poor Thai restaurants. Loaded with sugar and made with the wrong type of basil—most often Thai or worse, regular sweet basil—it becomes a cloying dish with little resemblance to the aromatic, pungent original. At Zabb, they do it right, with almost medicinal-tasting fried Holy Basil, plenty of chili, crisply fried cubes of pork belly that retain a juicy, fatty center, and a bit of Thai-style oyster sauce to add sweetness and round out the complex flavors.
Oyster sauce also makes an appearance in the Pukk Boong Moo Korb ($8), available with or without crisply fried pork belly (is that really even a question worth asking?). The stir-fried morning glory is crisp and watery, but not lacking in flavor.
You might have noticed that thus far, every dish has been under $9, and it's easy to stuff a large group of people for under $10 a head here. Indeed, the only dishes that break the $10 barrier are the whole fish that come either fried or grilled. According to Harold, the fried whole tilapia (Larb Pla Korb; $14) was disappointingly overcooked. Not a problem with our Pla Nil Pao ($14), which he declared as "cooked perfectly. Charred, tender and moist." A whole tilapia stuffed with Thai herbs charred on an open flame and served with a lime-chili sauce and a sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce, our only complaint was that the aroma of the herbs stuffed into its cavity didn't penetrate the meat as much as we'd have liked it to.
Authenticity is not the be-all-end-all when it comes to ethnic cuisines, but in a town plagued with second-rate overly sweet, baby-corn-and-cashew style Thai restaurants, Zabb Elee is a welcome departure that doesn't mess around when it comes to chili heat or the strong, pungent flavors of Isan.
In fact, not only is it certainly the most authentic Isan restaurant in Manhattan, I'd venture to say that it has the formerly untouchable Queens options pretty well licked to boot.