When Elmhurst’s Chao Thai appeared in 2006 in the shadow of the LIRR tracks, it was one of the first restaurants in the city to concentrate on the food of Isan. Five years later we had many more such places, not only in Elmhurst, but in Jackson Heights, Hell’s Kitchen, Astoria, and the East Village. Isan, the largest of Thailand’s six regions, sprawls across the country’s northeast corner, bordering the Mekong River. Thus freshwater fish is a thing, in addition to meat and poultry salads, sour sausage, jerked meats, green papaya salads, grilled chicken, and a lavish use of fish sauce, herbs, lime juice, and chiles, as well as a lack of stir fries and noodles that make up the menus of most Thai restaurant in New York (sticky rice is preferred).
One thing the early Isan places had in common, though, was a menu that added dishes from other regions of Thailand, including the noodles of adjacent Chiang Mai. At the time, this was not a bad thing. But now a restaurant has appeared in Elmhurst, providing the deepest dive into Isan food the city has yet seen, offering little from elsewhere. Eating at Hug Esan is a wonderful adventure, with lots of dishes previously absent at most New York restaurants, and regional standards offered in a dazzling number of variations, including plenty of offal and hot chiles.
On the ground floor of a nondescript apartment building, the two-year-old cafe looks like a garage, and you may have to push your way past some lawn care equipment to enter. Inside are only seven tables, and decorations that run to Thai street signage and a lovely wall of colorful floral enamelware of the type used all over Southeast Asia by food hawkers. A window looks into the kitchen, and an affable server hastens over to take your order, prepped to explain everything, if necessary.
Think you’ve tasted pork larb before? Here, the salad comes dressed with the usual rice powder, shallots, and mint, but the ground pork is supplemented with liver and ears. The former adds a mellow and funky edge; the latter some slippery crunch. For the liver fanatic, a version using only liver is also listed. You love funky? A choice of 13 variations on the classic papaya salad are available, many with the fish sauce called pla ra squirted on with abandon.
If you haven’t tried Isan pla ra, it is stronger and thicker than any other fish sauce I’ve encountered, including the legendary Roman garum. Poured over the raw shrimp papaya salad ($13), along with some perfumey chiles, it makes a salad you can probably smell and almost taste a block away. Isan cooking is all about sharp flavors. Other papaya salads here feature raw crab, pickled chicken feet, and noodles. Even the East Village’s papaya salad specialist Somtum Der doesn’t do them better.
Other recommended dishes included a crab-stuffed omelet cooked crusty brown and served over rice; a neur num tok salad that turned out to be almost exclusively rib-eye steak strips with a citrusy dressing and ground peanuts, making it taste engagingly like a beefy peanut butter sandwich; and a rendition of the grilled chicken gai yang made with thighs that I found myself craving even after I’d gobbled the last one up. Nobody in town does gai yang quite so well, especially after the closing of Pok Pok, where it was an outdoor backyard staple.
A soupy bowl of thin rice noodles called mee ka tee seemed to violate every one of the seeming principles of Isan cooking as I understood them. Those principles could be expressed as series of negatives: no noodles, no curries, and no coconut milk. But heaped with herbs, the mee ka tee was uber-craveable nonetheless. There’s also a toasted rice salad dotted with Isan sour sausage called nam khao tod ($14) that had in incredible depth of flavor, herbal and gingery. It, too, was unique not only among the Isan establishments I’d visited, but among all Thai restaurants I’ve enjoyed over the years.
The restaurant is owned by Chiraporn Sornphoom and her sister Jariya Charoenwong; the chef is Jintana Khamphaiboon. One Saturday afternoon as I sat in the tiny restaurant with my belly on fire, Sornphoom came from the kitchen to accept my compliments. “Well, if you liked the spicy and savory items, you’ve got to try the desserts,” she said. Soon she was back at the table with three tiny crocks of Thai coconut pudding thickened with taro ($5). After a rich, meat heavy, and fiery meal, they were balm upon my lips.