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Coated and pulsing with chiles and mint, the feathery crumbles of catfish radiate heat, flashing sourness and funk from lime juice and fish sauce. A similar flavor assault waged on three preparations of pork (ground, grilled and sliced, and fried crisp) testifies to the technique’s versatility. Supported by shallots, cilantro, and roasted rice powder, such aggressive seasoning showcases the spices of the Isan region of northeast Thailand, with every bite crackling between extremes of taste and texture. Born in Laos and both adopted and adapted by northern Thailand, the minced-meat salads known as larb (or laap) serve as the mascots for Lan Larb, a duo of casual restaurants that opened last fall in Soho and midtown.
For decades, diners in search of Thailand’s punchiest, most complex flavors headed to Queens for the rich, nutty, coconut-milk-sweetened curries of the nation’s central and southern regions. Only in the past fifteen years have the sour, fermented, often tongue-searing ingredients of Isan cuisine grabbed hold of the city’s collective taste buds.
One chef at the vanguard of New York’s Isan influx has been Ratchanee Sumpatboon. Upon arriving in 2005, Sumpatboon got her bearings in a number of Queens kitchens before opening a place of her own, Poodam’s, in Astoria. Poodam’s is long gone; these days Sumpatboon is headquartered at Larb Ubol, a funky Hell’s Kitchen café clad in multicolored tartan that, two years after its debut, is widely regarded as one of Manhattan’s best Thai restaurants. You won’t find Sumpatboon behind the burners at Lan Larb, even though the menus bear her name. (Like so many ambitious modern chefs, she took a consulting gig.) But you will find her recipes, and the kitchens tasked with executing them live up to her standards.
This is bright, exciting Thai food sold at affordable prices — a valuable resource in this town. (At $21, a whole fried fish tops the list.) The exclusion of pork liver from the list of larbs, and the addition of coconut-milk-based curries and universal crowd pleasers like pad Thai and “veggie spring rolls,” hint that this is, to twist a phrase, Sumpatboon Lite. That said, even with abbreviated Isan options, Lan Larb shines, from the sour pork sausages to the fiery larbs to som tum green papaya salads (try salted crab and fermented fish sauce for a sinus-clearing funk grenade, or chunks of avocado to soften the slap of chiles) and regional street food from all over Thailand. And although Lan Larb covers slightly broader ground than the rigidly Isan offerings at Larb Ubol, the menu’s spicy items range from moderately singeing to downright nuclear. Clear and deceptively tame-looking, the “Jungle Curry” is zapped with kaffir lime, lemongrass, fresh green peppercorns, and enough bird’s-eye chiles to prompt a warning when you place your order.
While Sumpatboon is known for wielding heat, peppers aren’t the only weapon in her arsenal. Captivating renditions of gently poached khao man gai (literally, “chicken fat rice”) and khao man gai tod, in which the bird is breaded and fried, ably reference Thai hawker fare. And it’s a relief to see ba mee, the food-stall favorite of thin, bouncy egg noodles twirled into a nest and paired with chewy slips of barbecued pork and a generous pile of lump crab meat. Pour an accompanying saucer of aromatic pork broth into the bowl and stir, swirling surf and turf into a briny, brawny elixir. Pigs soar triply on a plate of khao moo daeng, rice topped with sweet Chinese sausage, cubes of brittle fried pork belly, and more barbecued pork. A porky duo (rib and sausage) anchors “Ubol Noodle Soup,” a nod to Sumpatboon’s flagship.
Lan Larb’s midtown location offers a more polished atmosphere: proper bar, modern hanging lamps, plenty of natural wood around the dining room. Endowed with only a third of the space and seating and hardly any decorative embellishments, the Soho outpost is better suited to lunch or takeout. Both are cause for celebration. Isan cuisine’s recent rise to Western prominence reflects diners’ changing palates, and the message is clear: We can stand the heat. Perhaps Lan Larb signals a tide that’s rising to the mainstream.