The only reason Ratchanee Sumpatboon's name hasn't become more familiar may be the difficulty of pronouncing it. She's the chef who pioneered Isan food in Queens, first at Chao Thai, then at Poodam — it means "black crab," which was her childhood nickname. "I was short and dark-skinned," she once confided, "so my family and friends called me Poodam." Sumpatboon next brought Isan food to Manhattan, initially at Zabb Elee in the East Village and later at her own place in Hell's Kitchen called Larb Ubol. Now, one year later, this ambitious and talented chef has just opened another pair of restaurants, both named Lan Larb. One is east of Soho on Centre Street, the other on First Avenue in Kip's Bay.
The menu at Lan Larb Soho overlaps that of its forerunner Larb Ubol by about 80 percent, but the food tends to be arranged on the plate with more attention to appearance — long a feature of Manhattan Thai dining establishments — and the entrees average a dollar or two more apiece. Outfitted with ethnographic objects in little niches and an up-to-date lighting scheme, Lan Larb Soho feels like a typical neighborhood Thai restaurant. It offers crowd-pleasing curries from southern Thailand that Larb Ubol ignore, as well as dishes included merely for their trashy familiarity, such as fried calamari and chicken wings with a sweet dipping sauce. Health enthusiasts will relish the vegetarian spring rolls and steamed vegetable dumplings.
But the balance of the menu concentrates mainly on the food of Isan, Thailand's impoverished northeastern region across the Mekong River from Laos and Cambodia, where sharp flavors like fish sauce, hot chiles, tamarind, lime juice, kaffir lime, and coriander abound, minus the mellowing influence of coconut milk. In particular Lan Larb explores the interplay of Laotian and Siamese cuisines in a way unseen before in New York City via a series of unique dishes.
Lan Larb explores the interplay of Laotian and Siamese cuisines in a way unseen before in New York City.
One such dish is Lao chicken soup ($10), a sizable tureen that deposits the unusual combo of fresh chicken and pickled fish in a tart brown tamarind broth. Dredge around and find shredded green papaya, tangling tendrils of water spinach, firm long-beans, and Thai eggplants, which look for all the world like tiny watermelons. A perfumed odor wafts up from the bowl as the soup is served. Isaan strikes back with a seafood soup ($15) also based on tamarind broth, flavored with fish sauce, basil, lemongrass, and jaew — a fiery ground-spice mixture that explodes with umami. Jaew is just one of the surprises that lurks around every corner of Lan Larb's menu.
The heart of the bill of fare are the ground-meat salads called larbs (alternatively known as laaps, larps, or lahbs, according to a footnote on the menu). While most Thais in town offer pedestrian chicken and pork versions, here there are eight, of which the best is made with duck ($11). It incorporates little tidbits of skin among micro-nuggets of the feathered creature, conferring a welcome crispness. Back in Isan, the salad would be dressed with duck blood, which may be a little more funk than Soho could stand.
The catfish version is also worth ordering, utilizing a sun-dried form of the fish broken up into chewy shreds redolent of a muddy and lazy river. Another version, and one not offered at Larb Ubol, is larb nam-tok nuer, featuring beef that's been grilled in strips rather than merely ground and steamed, and hence retains more meaty savor. Any larb comes accompanied by cabbage and cucumbers; one way to eat these larbs is by piling bitefuls on the veggies. Sumpatboon offers competing renditions of som tum, too, the famous shredded green papaya salad prepared with a mortar and pestle, which more effectively releases the aromatic flavors than, say, a food processor. The Laotian version of the papaya salad adds raw crab and pickled fish, while the Isaan one deploys dried shrimp.
It will be like a flamethrower in your mouth
While Larb Ubol pointedly ignores curries entirely, Lan Larb offers them out of necessity, given the broad range of expectations for Thai food on the part of its patrons. While the green curry is predictably humdrum, the massaman curry of beef and potatoes is a paragon of unspicy mellowness, suggesting you should order it if only to staunch the extreme burn of the Isan fare. By the way, there is an exception to the "curries tend to be bland" rule at Lan Larb Soho. It's called jungle curry (with mock duck, $12), and you should order it with some caution. If you request it at the top of its potential hotness — the waitress is likely to offer you a four or five point spiciness scale — it will be like a flamethrower aimed at your mouth. Which might just be the perfect thing for a wintry evening.
Cost: Meal for two, including shared app, larb salad, and entree soup, including tax but not tip, $30.
Sample dishes: Somtom gai yang (grilled chicken with spicy green-papaya salad), curry puffs (Thai chicken turnovers), larb ped (ground duck salad), Lao chicken soup, sai krag Isaan (grilled sour pork sausage), pad kee-mao (spicy rice noodles).
What to drink: Thai iced coffee or tea, $3. Lan Larb Soho is BYOB, but bring your own beer or white wine from home, since the closest store that sells them late in the evening is many blocks distant.
Bonus tip: Hotness can be adjusted at your request; my party found the three a bit too bland, but on one occasion, the four was almost too spicy to eat. All such heat scales are like playing Russian roulette.