I love the food of Southeast Asia, but it can be full of hidden dangers for vegetarians. Fish sauce, tiny dried shrimp, and all forms of pork can show up when you least expect them. When Zabb Elee, specializing in Isaan cuisine (Isaan being the northeast region of Thailand), opened in the East Village, food websites (including our own) went nuts for the authentic, delicious, and legitimately spicy food. I actually avoided it for a while, thinking there wouldn't be much for me, but recently I discovered that the staff was quite accommodating when it came to vegetarian requests, and were more than happy to make many of the dishes without fish sauce or meat of any kind.
We started our meal with the larb per proam ($11), a salad made with vegetarian duck. Our server asked if spicy food was okay, and we agreed that it was, but the larb had no heat at all. The other components were great, and the mix of flavors, textures, and temperatures was really fun. We wrapped the mock duck, herbs, onion, and crumbled peanuts in the fresh cabbage leaves and happily munched away.
At the top of the page is the yum kai dao ($7), described as "fried eggs (sunny side up) spicy salad." It's topped with fried eggs, complete with runny yolks, then doused with a mix of chilies, lime juice, and herbs. Here was the spice that the larb had been missing, along with tons of flavor. As we ate, the egg yolk mixed with the greens and the lime juice, making an unusual but tasty dressing for the salad.
If there's one thing that really surprised me about Zabb Elee, it was the abundance of egg dishes on the menu. In addition to the yum kai dao we sampled the khai jiaw kratiem dong ($7), one of many omelets available. This was almost a straightforward omelet, except for the nubs of pickled garlic. It reminded me of diner food more than any Thai dish I've eaten before, especially with the ketchup-like red sauce served along with it.
When I first asked our server about vegetarian options, the first thing she pointed to was the pukk boong fai dang ($11): sautéed morning glory with chiles. I was intrigued by the name alone, having never eaten morning glory before. The vegetable has a crunchy green stem and came mixed with a salty, sweet, and sour sauce. It was also spicy—really spicy. The combination of those flavors made this dish the most familiar to me as Thai, based on my experience with Thai food here in New York.
Living in a city with so many Americanized Thai restaurants had led me to expect a certain type of menu, one with variations on items like pad thai and pineapple fried rice. Zabb Elee shattered those expectations by showing me a wide variety of Thai food, one I hadn't expected. The fact that they were so willing to make the dishes completely vegetarian was also an unexpected pleasure, and one that makes me looking forward to many future visits there.
About the author: Howard Walfish is a Virginia native who has been living in New York since 2003. He is, in fact, a vegetarian, and is the co-founder of Eat to Blog and the creator of BrooklynVegetarian.