Isaan Like Donkey Kong
It's a fascinating thing, watching the ebb and flow of the seemingly limitless establishments and cuisines our city experiences. In recent years, we've danced with barbecue, flirted with multicourse tasting menus, and briefly wrapped our clammy hands around pizza cones. Now it's the Northeast that's getting its due — the seductive northeastern reaches of Thailand's Isaan region, that is. Three recent openings — Hell's Kitchen's Larb Ubol, Somtum Der in Alphabet City, and Qi Esarn Thai Kitchen near Union Square — have all launched with Isaan flavors as the backbone of their menus.
New York City's introduction to Thai food was predominantly through dishes from the country's interior, full of coconut milk, sumptuous curries, and umami-rich noodle stir-fries. The past decade has seen a rise in the prevalence of Isaan dishes around town that has only intensified: One of the world's spiciest cuisines is now one of the city's hottest. Call us culinary conspiracy theorists, but that talking bottle of fish sauce told us that it must be a response to all the palate fatigue brought on by gonzo-trendy food items. For every hybrid pastry and ground meat patty shoved between Lord knows what for buns, the pungent herbs, bright citrus, and chile heat of Isaan food are a welcome counterpoint.
Isaan dishes encourage sharing. Many of the region's most famous recipes take cues from bordering Laos, and none may be more recognizable than somtum and larb, two scorching salads known for shocking taste buds. Somtum centers around shredded green papaya soaked in fish sauce, while larb features minced meat mixed with fresh herbs and roasted rice powder; both contain an ungodly amount of chile peppers and lime juice. The dishes are so indicative of the area that two restaurants have banked their success on them.
Before opening Larb Ubol, Ratchanee Sumpatboon owned PooDam in Astoria, and she's stayed true to the flavors and ingredients she knows best. Her larbs are some of the most well-balanced around, vibrant with lime juice and roughly chopped herbs. The restaurant boasts 10 varieties, from shredded grilled catfish to diced mushrooms, but the rugged pork liver takes to the intense marinade without giving up its own strong taste. At Bangkok import Somtum Der on Avenue A, the catfish larb bests a chopped duck version, gaining volume and nutty flavor from toasted rice.
Qi Esarn, which only recently reinvented itself with an Isaan bent (perhaps after noticing all the coverage of like-minded spots), tapped Pichet Ong and former Del Posto chef Claire Handleman to consult on the new menu, a section of which is divided into dishes attributed to each chef. Handleman's duck larb features large chunks of tender fowl, which, while cooked properly, suffer from a marinade overwhelmed by lime juice, although stalks of fresh herbs including mint and sawtooth coriander help to temper the concentrated sourness. The jumble of vegetation matches any New Nordic presentation in rusticity even if the flavors are unbalanced. On the other hand, Handleman's green mango salad haunts with a scattering of candied anchovies.
From Ong, funky dried shrimp don't infuse enough Isaan oomph into a busy, overly sweet salad of carrots, grapes, tomatoes, cashews, peanuts, and toasted coconut. The promised kaffir lime leaf and mint are lost in the mix. Mealy gooseberries and overcooked tiger prawns are even more of a bummer. Better to stick to succulent mooh pingh pork skewers, grilled with a coconut marinade and spicy tamarind dipping sauce. Ong also puts out a heady southern turmeric pork curry lent depth from a helping of shrimp paste, bird's eye chiles, and peppery galangal. Qi Esarn is the sole restaurant of the three to serve insects, a traditional Isaan delicacy. Gimmick or not, the soy-seasoned grasshoppers and silkworms make for a novel drinking snack.
Larb Ubol and Somtum Der suffered from fewer inconsistencies. River fish are another hallmark of the regional diet, and Larb Ubol's pla dook pad ped, a lacquered stir-fried catfish dish radiating with spicy curry paste and herbaceous fresh green peppercorns, is exemplary. Cooking renders the burnished hunks of bone-in fish crisp and tender all at once, the bones brittle enough to chew through. Pork sports admirable bark at Somtum Der — sun-dried, deep-fried, and served with sweet and sour sauce. The restaurant's namesake papaya salad comes strewn with salted egg, field crabs, and crunchy pork rinds, and grilled pork neck meat is an adept choice.
The city's diners don't appear to be done exploring Southeast Asian cuisine. Though we will embrace the next trendy territory with open arms and plenty of water, for now, it's adventure enough living in these fiery, fermented times.
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