Food from the Isaan region has become the holy grail of Thai cuisine. But who can explain what it is? Fiery salads, certainly, in which pungent herbs replace lettuces, and the central ingredient is often ground meat or preserved fish. Skanky pork sausages sliced on the bias and proffered with toasted peanuts and raw ginger. River fish fried whole and smothered in sweet/tart sauces, and noodles dressed with briny Chinese gravies. Plus enough hot chilies to leave your mouth burning for hours.
Our exposure to Isaan for years was limited to papaya salad and a larb or two on local Siamese menus, in restaurants that mainly concerned themselves with presenting a forgettable 19th-century banquet cuisine sometimes known as Royal Thai. Then Sripraphai—which began life as a bakery a dozen years ago—introduced us to several mind-blowing regional Thai styles. More recently, Isaan cuisine itself appeared, first at the space-age Zabb diner in Jackson Heights, then at Chao Thai in Elmhurst. Now a new Isaan café has popped up, offering a more extended take on this fascinating cuisine. Poodam (“black crab”) occupies a corner storefront on the southeastern fringes of Astoria, in premises that had entertained a series of awful Thai restaurants in the past. Luckily for us, a real-estate jinx has just been broken.
Don’t judge the range of Poodam’s Isaan cooking by the carry-out menu in the box outside the restaurant; instead, go inside and peer at the stand-alone “E-San” menu. Apparently, Poodam doesn’t think anyone wants to carry out Isaan, which hails from the impoverished northeastern region of the country, where Laotian, Vietnamese, and Chinese influences are strong. On that one-page menu you’ll find sai aua ($8.95), a coarse-textured sausage with a spectacular sour and grungy flavor. It arrives piled generously on the plate, ringed by peanuts, sliced green chilies, and shards of fresh ginger. The waitress tried to warn us away from it, wrinkling up her nose. Then she accused us of having developed a taste for it while traveling in northern Thailand.
Sausage abounds on the Isaan menu. Another variety resembles the paté in a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich. It comes in thin slices in “pork sausage salad” ($10.95), tossed with purple onions, holy basil, shredded screwpine, shiny lime leaves, and tiny pickled bird chilies. Originating in the city of Chiang Mai, which lies northwest of Isaan near the Chinese border, “Thai sour sausage” is notably less sour than sai aua. In fact, it tastes a lot like a Polish kielbasa, which means it’s made with pork and loaded with garlic.
Other prodigal preparations on the Isaan menu include a salad featuring ground duck (larb ped, $12.95); a plank of dense and salty preserved fish (pla som), best eaten in small bites while holding your nose; and an outlandish assemblage of fish maw, fried pork skin, and cashews that goes by the jocular name of “Three Buddies Crispy Salad.” Best of all is a soup tart with lime juice and lemongrass that features meaty hunks of pig leg. As with other soups on the menu, it could easily be shared among four or five diners, though this might result in a fight over the best swine tidbits.
The regular menu is a sea of glowing red ink. There’s the standard papaya salad ($7.95)—a giant heap of shredded green fruit, tomatoes, and long beans, with peanuts and dried shrimp rendering a double crunch. Slightly more interesting is a bamboo-shoot salad; the crunch is mainly provided by toasted sesame seeds. You have to do some careful excavation to distinguish the limpid bamboo shoots from the herbs that form the compact mass. Located among the appetizers, hoy ob mor din ($8.95) is a spicy broth delivered in a clay pot, featuring mussels so big they must have a personal trainer.
Among the choice of seven sauces that comes with the whole fish ($18.95, usually tilapia), I’d go for either the basil or the “Chu Chee”—a pungent curry paste mellowed with coconut milk. The menu also offers a selection of six Thai curries, which are characteristic of southern Thai cuisine and not nearly as hot as the word “curry” might imply. But then again, maybe you need a refuge from chilies at this point.
Inevitably, there’s a pad thai ($6.95)—I approached this sweet, tangled mass of rice noodles, sprouts, eggs, and peanuts thinking it might be better than the versions found elsewhere. As usual, it was awful.