Isaan Food Explodes Like a Mortar Round in Jackson Heights
The sausage alone is worth the trip. Pinkish, cut on the bias, flecked with fat, it spills into a makeshift arena formed by ranked accompaniments: raw ginger, cilantro, and purple onions, each flinging a sharp additional flavor. Served warm, the sausage tastes pleasantly sour, a contrast to much sweeter Chinese sausages. Another noble appetizer is the jazzy-sounding moo dad ($7.50), chewy scrabbles of marinated pork cooked to the consistency of jerky. Planted in a lettuce cradle, it's a treat that, like the sausage, is spare and deeply delicious.
Zabb is a newcomer to the long, dark ribbon of Roosevelt Avenue under the No. 7 tracks on the western frontier of Jackson Heights. The plain facade sports a pair of crossed red chiles and the word Esan, referring to northeastern Thailand. More often transliterated as Isaan, this region is the country's poorest, composed mainly of an arid sandstone plateau incapable of sustaining much agriculture. Paradoxically, Isaan is also the holy grail of Thai cuisine. It's what Los Angeles foodies could righteously claim they had and we didn't. But gradually, Isaan cooking has been creeping into Queens.
Ask a dozen experts what Isaan is, and you'll get 12 different answers. All agree that the food is more fiery and less fussy, favoring ground-meat salads, Chinese-leaning noodles, Mekong River catfish, grilled chicken, and dishes showing Laotian and Cambodian influences. Salads and noodles occupy half of Zabb's menu. Loaded with finely minced meat or fish, the salads strain our idea of what a salad is. Laab ($10) arrives tepid, an enormous mess of brownish-gray catfish laced with all sorts of flavorings, including mint leaves, chiles, garlic, lemongrass, lime juice, and galangal, a more subtle variant of ginger. The first forkful explodes in your mouth, and as we passed it among our table of seven, each face lit up. Yum ped ($8) is less complicated, boneless pieces of duck tossed with deep-green long beans and an apple julienne in a lively citrus dressing. As at all Thai restaurants in town, there's a pleasing salad of shredded green papaya. But in contrast to other Siamese restaurants, which keep it simple and sweet-tart, Zaab improves its rendition with salt-cured crab, and crunchy pork skins add to the excitement.
Noodles appear not only on their own, but in most soups too. Num tok ($8) is reminiscent of Vietnamese pho, a dark, fragrant broth planted with rubbery beef balls, slices of beef or pork, amorphous hunks of liver, and stomach tripe cut to resemble the fettuccine-shaped noodles. With a similar playful spirit, the swatches of squid in gal kua resemble chow fun noodles, inviting you to look carefully at each bite. From a selection much smaller than at most Thai places, Zabb's curries are made from scratch rather than from bottled pastes, and they show it. Green curry ($7) features eggplant and basil leaves with porkchicken, beef, or seafood is also available, but less appealingin a gritty, olive-colored drab sauce thickened with coconut milk that sings with flavor. More brownish than reddish, red curry has the mellow smell of cinnamon, but packs a prodigious chile punch.
It's up to you, of course, to let the staff know that you like chiles and want your food as spicy as they eat it themselves. The staff will believe you and readily comply.
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