In 2019, Hug Esan opened on Elmhurst’s two-block-long Little Bangkok on Woodside Avenue. Concentrating on the foods of Isan, it threw fistfuls of bold ingredients our way, including pork liver and ears, raw river crab, chicken feet, pork neck, and sour sausage. All these were delivered in an elaborately decorated garage with only a handful of small tables.
Now the folks behind Hug Esan have an offshoot that opened a few weeks ago named Lenox Thai, at 1217 First Avenue near 66th Street in the starchy Lenox Hill neighborhood of the Upper East Side. Rather than focusing exclusively on Isan food with its showy larbs, jerkies, and grilled chickens, it heads right for homestyle dishes from across northern Thailand. My editor and I couldn’t wait to visit, just to see how the food differed from that its sibling.
The brightly lit interior is even smaller than Hug Esan, with two tables and a narrow bar against the window, seating seven in total. Nevertheless, a delightful mural of a home kitchen scene graces one wall, making it a pleasant place to eat, though the business is clearly aimed mainly at carryout.
We tried six dishes. Sa cool veggies ($10) is the name for wonderfully gooey orbs of tapioca starch filled with crushed peanuts and aromatic herbs and alliums. They are also a bit sweet, making them an irresistible starter, especially when wrapped in the accompanying lettuce leaves and cilantro. They are native to both Thailand and Laos — just across the Mekong River from Isan — and I’d never seen them in a Thai restaurant before.
Pork belly remains the showcase meat at Lenox Thai, with some steak dishes thrown in. The stew here called pa lo sam chan ($23), a classic dish featuring belly braised with a boiled egg in a dark broth, would have been an excellent choice, but instead we picked tod moo krob esan ($12), slices of the streaky meat lightly breaded and deep fried, bringing out every morsel of porky flavor. It’s served with a meat dipping sauce listed as jeaw, known more formally as nam jim jeaw. It tastes powerfully of fish sauce and lime.
Instead of the range of papaya salads found at Hug Esan, Lenox Thai offers a single pared-down example ($13). It consists of the usual shredded green papaya, grape tomatoes, carrots, and crunchy toasted peanuts, presented with an intense fish sauce with lots of heat. We loved it even more than examples featuring raw crab. A corn and raw-green-bean salad features fresh-cut corn, dressed in similar flavors and some tiny red birds-eye chiles. We liked the papaya salad more.
Our favorite among Thai dishes we’ve had this year is described on the menu as a curry rice ball salad ($25). This pungent toss of vegetables flavored with shallots, scallion, and batons of raw ginger features short-grain rice smashed with sour fermented sausage and fried supremely crisp: It’s an altogether brilliant assortment of flavors.
There are no alcoholic beverages, but Thai ice tea and Thai ice coffee are available. But even better is the butterfly pea lemonade ($5), which is only slightly sweet and an arresting shade of purple. All it needs is a shot of gin.