‘How hot do you want your food, on a scale of one to five?” asked our waitress at Zabb Elee. “Two?”
“No, more like four or five,” I replied.
“Oh, wow!” she exclaimed. “You want it Thai spicy.”
Damn right I do. I’d come to this East Village offshoot of the Queens original to scorch my taste buds with the capsaicin flames of Thailand’s Isan cuisine. Unlike at most Thai restaurants in New York—and especially Manhattan—you’ll actually find the heat you crave here. What you won’t encounter: drunken noodles or the cream-cheese abomination otherwise known as crab Rangoon. Instead, the menu traverses a maze of sour, tangy, and piquant flavors, each brighter than the next.
This vibrancy comes as a surprise because Le Da Nang, a decidedly bland and mediocre Vietnamese joint, formerly occupied this space on a bustling block of Second Avenue. Although the menu has been completely overhauled, the ownership and staff remain the same. Ditto the casual faux-colonial décor: pale white banquettes and walls, geometric wooden mirrors, and an ornate tile floor. Incongruous, sure, though at least Siam was close to the former French Indochina. The blaring Top 40 tunes also don’t help the ambience—but who doesn’t have a secret soft spot for Katy Perry?
Begin the meal with a mainstay of Isan fare, larb—cool salads made from ground meat, mint, scallions, toasted rice powder, and a punchy lime dressing. You can get nearly any base you desire here for $9, from duck (studded with fatty skin cracklings) to pork liver to a bamboo-shoot version. They’re better options than the nam tok salads ($9), essentially the same thing, but prepared with grilled meat. Som tum salads ($8–$10) mostly flaunt julienned green papaya; for something a bit funkier, try the som tum tang kai tom, a tumble of sliced cucumbers, hardboiled eggs, and pickled fish.
According to my personal thesaurus, a synonym for happiness is “crispy pork.” Lucky for me, it features prominently on the menu. Pad ped moo korb ($8) coats the nuggets in a fragrant curry rich with basil and ginger and glimmering with tiny crunchy eggplants. Kra pao moo korb ($9), meanwhile, is somewhat less successful, drowning in a glut of oyster sauce and littered with fried basil.
Tilapia also sees heavy rotation, but given its general likeness to mud mixed with poop, skip it. If you’re desperately seeking seafood, order the pla goong ($9), steamed-shrimp salad with lime dressing, lashed with lemongrass and sliced red chilies. You’ll feel the burn—and like a good masochist, you won’t want it to stop.
If tart flavors whet your appetite, opt for one of the spicy toam soups ($9), amped up with lemongrass and galangal. You’ll discover a better brothy bowl, however, in the nam tok ($7.50, not to be confused with the “nam tok” salads). Advertised as “dark noodle soup,” it plays host to a panoply of warming spices, sliced beef, thin rice noodles, and morning-glory shoots, in a liquid so thick it resembles murky swamp sludge. Murkier, perhaps, when you learn that pigs’ blood acts as the thickening and flavoring agent. But ignore any visions of Carrie and think of all that extra iron you’re slurping—no need to take your Flintstones vitamins today! But you’ve already got strength—you ordered Thai spicy, after all.
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