Isan dishes from northeastern Thailand began appearing on NYC menus in the 90s, but they didn’t come into their own until the following decade, when restaurants with “zabb” or “zaab” in their name (meaning tasty) started appearing in the East Village and other neighborhoods outside of Queens. Though these places offered a good measure of the cuisine’s fiery and meaty larbs, papaya salads, sour sausages, and grilled chickens, they still served the noodles, creamy curries, and basil stir fries that had characterized earlier Thai menus. But eventually, cafes that pretty much restricted themselves to Isan fare materialized, starting with Somtum Der and proceeding through Hug Esan, piloted by chefs intent on presenting the regional cuisine in its fullest form. The latest is Zaab Zaab, located at 76-04 Woodside Avenue, at 76th Street, in Elmhurst.
Chef Aniwat Khotsopa opened this exciting new spot three weeks ago on Elmhurst’s two-block Thai strip along Woodside Avenue. Though born in Isan’s capital of Udon Thani, he spent 25 years working at Jaiya Thai — founded in 1978, it was one of the first restaurants to introduce Thai cooking to the city, and multiple locations eventually opened but only the Murray Hill location remains today.
Zaab Zaab is a breezy, well-decorated space with plenty of outdoor seating, sharing the street with a half-dozen other Thai restaurants, a grocery, and other businesses. The interior flaunts a striking painted ceiling, depicting roosters, stars, and confetti; a neon mortar representing the preparation method of the cuisine’s papaya salads shines on one wall; and a glassed-in open kitchen, with — somewhat surprisingly — Chinese-style roast ducks hanging on hooks face a bar where wine, beer, and sake cocktails are served.
The menu focuses on those ducks. Foremost is larb ped udon ($19), a deliriously good take on the Isan salads, often focusing on ground meat, we’ve come to love. This one boasts not only minced duck, but also tidbits of skin and liver, making the dish multi-textured and hopelessly rich. The recipe, which comes from the chef’s hometown, features a strong note of the gingery galangal root that’s charred for extra flavor. The dish is spiked with a healthy dose of chiles, and accompanied by lettuce leaves for wrapping and dipping in the dark juices that pool on the plate. Fresh herbs like cilantro, mint, and even dill are also provided — but notably, there’s no basil.
Indeed, that licoricey herb is a sort of no-fly zone for the chef. It’s also absent from the menu’s second-best dish, mieng pla prow ($35). Since Isan lies along the Mekong River, fish and other aquatic creatures are an important aspect of the cuisine — such as this roasted tilapia marinated in spices and crusted with salt. Lemongrass and pandan (aka screwpine, an astringent leaf) have been stuffed in the cavity, and the fish’s skin is peeled back for easy access. (Don’t bother eating it though, it’s too salty nor does it have that appealing crispy texture.)
An array of herbs and other greenery are also presented on the tray, along with a pair of sauces — one dark and sweet, the other briny and citrusy — and a tangle of rice noodles. Wrap each morsel of fish in a lettuce leaf, adding noodles and herbs, and then dip the package in the sauces. Each nibble is heavenly.
Other river creatures are also featured. You can fortify your papaya salad with pickled black crab ($16.95), which adds crunch and a funky flavor — though the crab takes some effort to chew. This and other papaya salads on the menu deploy a fish sauce made on the premises, thicker and more flavorful than the usual bottled variety.
Looking across the river to a dish also enjoyed in Laos, hor mok is a banana-leaf-wrapped pyramid stuffed with either catfish or pork belly and bamboo shoots. There are small chiles in the mix, but the most distinctive effect comes from bai yanang, an herb whose sour flavor is a memorable departure from that of lemongrass, subtler and more creamy. Indeed, the chef strives for taste sensations not often found in Thai restaurants here. While the few other versions of hor mok I’ve tried (most notably at Ugly Baby and the late Mondayoff) have been custardy, this one is soupy, suggesting you should order some sticky rice to go with it.
One frontier Zaab Zaab has crossed when it comes to Thai food involves offal. Apart from the stray cubes of pig blood added to soups in many restaurants, organs are uncommon (yes, blood is an organ). Besides the liver mentioned in the duck larb above, other meat salads feature gizzards and liver (chicken larb), and skin and liver (pork larb). Tom hang ($19) is even more organ intensive. The simply steamed collection of cow tripe, spleen, and intestine makes no attempt to hide the nature of what you’re eating with sauces or salads, but provides a pair of pungent dipping sauces.
This emphasis on organs is one way Khotsopa and Zaab Zaab are expanding our idea of what Thai food can be, justifying its status as one of the most interesting cuisines currently flourishing in the city.