480 9th Avenue, New York, NY 10018 (at 37th; map); 212-564-1822; larbubol.com
Service: Smiling and solicitous, sometimes overly so
Setting: Earnestly tacky in the best possible way
Must-Haves: Pad ped moo krob, larb, duck pad ped
Cost: Mid-size dishes $8 to $20; expect to pay about $25 per person
Compare To: Zabb Elee, Ayada, SriPraPhai, Chao Thai
Recommendation: Recommended. Best Thai restaurant on 9th Avenue and among the top in Manhattan, even if it's not perfect.
By my estimation, Ninth Avenue is home to a couple dozen Thai restaurants between 55th and 30th Streets. And with an exception or two, they're all pretty crummy. But with the arrival of Larb Ubol that might be changing.
Larb Ubol specializes in Isan cuisine, food from the northeast of Thailand along the Laotian border, which is characterized by the incendiary heat of dried chilies and includes a pantheon of spicy chopped meat salads best downed with beer. You won't find any coconut milk curry here, and the pad Thai is an obligatory one. No: you come for fiery som tum and deeply spiced larb, stir fries of pork and whole crispy fish.
If this sounds familiar to some other New York restaurants, it should: the kitchen is run by the talented chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon, most recently of Zabb Elee, and if you've been wondering, like I have, whether Zabb might be slipping in the past few months, Larb Ubol might be the reason why. But that's okay, as even though this new spot is still young, it's already getting a lot right, enough to count it as a leader among the city's growing Isan restaurants.
A look inside Larb Ubol reveals an adorably tacky space. A useless empty bar dominates the restaurant's entry (Larb Ubol is presently BYOB); chairs benches are upholstered in mismatched baggy plaid; two of the three dining areas are separated by a vertical white picket fence adorned with fabric sunflowers. If you're lucky, you'll dine to soft rock covers of the Rolling Stones.
But don't judge the place until you've tried a plate of Pad Ped Moo Krob ($11), slices of fried fatty pork jumbled with a fresh red curry sauce and spherical Thai eggplant two ways: quartered for crunch and sliced thin for tenderness. The gentle sweetness tempered by chilies, green peppercorns, and ginger hits in layers, a tongue-searing dish that rewards contemplation.
The top of the menu leans heavily towards salads: those with ground meat, others with larger hunks of grilled meat, and shredded green papaya, many in half a dozen variations. Most fetching of the som tum (papaya) may be the Poo Plara ($10), the fresh-tasting fruit cut with the one-two punch of salt-preserved crab and pickled fish. Funky, briny, and, if you ask, hellishly hot, it's as far removed from the sugary papaya salads elsewhere on Ninth that you could hope to find.
The namesake larb at Larb Ubol may not take the city's top honors—it could use the searing heat of Kin Shop's duck, the moody spices you find at Pok Pok, or the interplay between citrus and fat that Chao Thai negotiates so gracefully—but I'd hardly call it disappointing. Both Pla Dook (shredded catfish, $11) and Moo Krob (fried fatty pork, $10) are run through with chilies, lime, and coriander, sprinkled with toasted rice powder, and great with beer. (You'll find a liquor store next door.) The steak-like hunks of beef in the Nuer Nam Tok ($10) have a milder heat, but still a satisfying one.
These are mid-sized portions, either generous appetizers or slight mains, best ordered in groups to sample them all. When you do so, don't be shy about the sticky rice ($3). Larb Ubol's could be more tender, but a small bundle, plucked by hand and dragged through sour, spicy larb remains, is the best way to get the most out of your order. The small plates here encourage sharing rather than hinder it.
But there's still work to be done in the kitchen. Marinated and grilled pork jowl ($11) is more crunchy and cartilaginous than succulent, and Kai Yang ($9), a classic northern Thai dish of mild grilled chicken with a pungent, sour dipping sauce, comes out tough and bland. I admire that Sumpatboon is making her own Sai Krog Isan ($7), but the sausage needs more sourness and fermentation; as of now it comes across as just hammy. And though I quite like the Kai Jiaw ($8), a tender fried omelet dotted by ground pork, pickled garlic, or daikon, its deflated, wrinkled countenance shows how crackly its crust could have been. If you order it (and I think you should), pony up another two bucks to get a mix of ground pork and pickled garlic as your filling—they do well with each other.
Elsewhere on the menu you'll find larger mains like eight-piece duck and a whole fried red snapper. That Duck Pad Ped ($11) is one of the best value ducks I've seen in some time—the brown sauce is several shades less sweet than the cloying New York Thai standard, the notes of basil forceful, the skin still crisp beneath its shellack of glaze. You've paid more money for tougher duck; get this one instead.
And then there's that snapper, Pla Rard Prik ($20), steamed beneath its greaseless crust and just as loaded with aromatic basil. You could try to be polite and cut it into serving portions, but you're best off picking it apart by hand, feeling for bones as you go, the way fried fish should be eaten. In a lesser Thai restaurant these sweet sauces would overwhelm; here they're tight and complex, careful complements to fish and duck.
There is also dessert, but the selections are meager: ice cream, which can be served fried if you long for the mall dessert of your youth, or a coarsely shaved ice loaded with bubblegum-flavored syrup and little else. Skip them and continue to lament the absence of good dessert in this part of New York.
Unlike Zabb Elee, Larb Ubol isn't strictly an Isan restaurant. Stir fried noodle dishes including, yes, pad Thai, are popular lunch specials, perhaps an acknowledgement of the conservative palates a west 30s restaurant must serve. We'll come back for lunch some time, but do yourself a favor and venture out to dishes that sound unfamiliar. Sumpatboon is one of the city's best ambassadors to Thai food, and even if her new restaurant is still working through some kinks, she has something to teach us all.