If one of the tens of thousands of future office workers at Hudson Yards asked me where to grab a hearty lunch, I’d say, without hesitation, Larb Ubol — for electrically charged meat salads. If one of the hundreds of thousands of daily theatergoers asked me where to get great Thai before a Broadway show, my answer would be Larb Ubol — for tart juliennes of papaya laced with dried shrimp and chiles.
And if one of the millions of New Yorkers were to ask where to get good Isan fare, the incendiary and aromatic cuisine of Northeastern Thailand — near the border with Laos and Cambodia — I’d say, well, there are a bunch great places. Somtum Der, a Bangkok-based restaurant, has an East Village location that can do some pretty funky things with salted field crab. Uncle Boon’s, a fantastic pan-regional Thai spot, serves a solid Isan-style sausage.
But really, for Northeastern Thai, I recommend Ratchanee Sumpatboon’s Larb Ubol in Hell’s Kitchen. It opened in 2013, earning the early praise (and constructive criticism) of Ligaya Mishan, Max Falkowitz, and Robert Sietsema.
Over the years, Larb Ubol has never earned the same consistent attention (or Michelin stars) as some of its fellow Thai peers. The chef, who moved to New York from Thailand in 2005, who ran Poodam in Astoria, and who consulted at the acclaimed Zabb Elee, isn’t as well known as, say, Andy Ricker or Ann Redding.
And Larb Ubol’s location isn’t as hip as its downtown counterparts; it sits just a few blocks south of the Port Authority Bus Station. Still, this strip of Midtown West is where you come for some of the city’s most stunningly executed larbs.
The dish is a staple of Laos and also a mainstay of Isan, where the majority of the population is ethnically Lao. Ubol offers most of the traditional varieties: catfish, chicken, pork liver, and, of course, duck. My advice: Get the duck ($12).
Anyone who misses the fine duck larb from the recently-closed Pok Pok would be well served to sample Sumpatboon’s riff. It is simply superior. The chef laces juicy bits of ground meat, heady with the flavor of game, with a tongue vibrating blend of lime juice, fish sauce, whole mint leaves, toasted rice powder, cilantro, raw onions, and chiles. She then adds in duck skin (not an uncommon ingredient) at a volume that gives virtually a third of the salad the texture of breakfast cereal — a duck-flavored breakfast cereal. It is splendid.
And while Sumpatboon’s larb doesn’t quite have the face melting heat of the old Kin Shop version, I’d argue that the more restrained chile levels allow for a clearer expression of the ingredients.
Just as good is the crispy pork larb, which involves slices of meat whose exterior evokes a chicharon, and whose interior packs a clean, porcine musk. It can be eaten on its own, or snatched up with a mound of sticky rice.
I’m calling the duck and pork larbs a BUY. Here I should point out that Sumpatboon is making some serious salads at her Lan Larb locations in Midtown East and downtown, as my fellow Eater NY critic reports, but as a Hell’s Kitchen resident who’s eager to see local businesses survive, and hopefully thrive, as the Hudson Yards complex beefs up, I’m going to stick with Larb Ubol for now.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).