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I heard about Zabb Elee on chowhound (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/774798) in a post written by comiendosiempre. He (or she) touted the Isaan (northeast Thai) food. I was excited by this post because I really like Isaan food and the Thai food in Manhattan is generally not very good. It seems to have had some history with the Zabb in Queens and Manhattan, but isn’t affiliated with either now. However, I believe it is affiliated with Spice as they advertise a branch of Spice on the wall toward the front.
While I’m no Thai cuisine expert, I’ve found Isaan cuisine to be quite different than what most people associate with Thai cuisine. There doesn’t seem to be much use of watery gravy curries, they eat a lot of sticky rice, there are alot salad-like dishes such as som tum (papaya salad) and larb (ground meat salad) and they eat grilled meats like sausage and yang (grilled meats). Something about the flavors and textures really hit the spot with me, more so than other Thai food I’ve had.
The restaurant is located in the space that housed the now defunct Vietnamese restaurant Le Da Nang. It’s a surprisingly nice space with white walls, white leather booths and dark wood tables and chairs. The staff is all Thai and very nice. I’ve found the service to be quite good on the two occasions I’ve dined there.
On to what we got:
- Som Tum Poo Plara: This is papaya salad with preserved crab and in a pickled fish sweet chili lime sauce (plara). The sweet fermented flavor of the “plara” sauce (fermented fish) goes well with the papaya. It does have a certain fermented scent which my girlfriend wasn’t crazy about, but this was great for me. I also like the pickled raw crab in the dish, which sort of reminds me of this Korean dish I really like. This was quite good. 8.25/10
- Som Tum Thai: This is papaya salad with dried shrimp and peanuts. While I really liked the “plara” version, I thought this version was even better as I really liked the condiments particularly the bigger dried shrimps and the roasted peanuts. 8.5/10
- Moo Korb Larb: This was crispy fried chunks of pork, shallots, fresh mint, scallion, cilantro, chili powder and lime dressing. I was expecting something slightly different and I didn’t think crispy chunks of pork went as well with the papaya salad as the normal ground pork. That said I liked it, but I prefer the ground pork version. 7.25/10
- Moo Larb: This is ground pork, shallots, fresh mint, scallion, cilantro, chili powder and lime dressing. I didn’t think the seasonings tasted all that different from the other Zabb City in Manhattan (whose version I do like quite a bit), but where I thought it really stood out was that the pork was actually pretty tender, which is kind of hard to do with ground pork. Overall, I thought this was great. 8.5/10
- Nuer Yang: This was grilled marinated beef with sweet chili and garlic chili dipping sauce. I wasn’t crazy about this, the beef was a little on the dry side. The sauces made it better, but I thought the beef was just too dry overall. 6.75/10
- Larb Plar Korb: This was recommended by the waitress. It was crispy chunks of whole Thai tilapia with shallot, mint, cilantro and chili lime dressing. The crispy pieces of fish were almost like fish jerky, they weren’t as tender as normal fish, but it was really good, I loved the texture and the combination of salty, sour and spicy flavors. This was awesome probably my favorite dish so far. 8.75/10
- Pad Ped Moo Korb: This was recommended by the waitress. It was crispy pork, thai eggplant, pepper, basil, wild ginger with spicy curry. This was not like most Thai curries where it’s a watery gravy curry, this was more of a dry and oily curry. The crispy pork went so well with the curry and other flavors in particular I loved the basil and saltiness of the dish. It’s a lot of flavors in one dish, so it’s hard to explain, but it was excellent. The waitress told us you need rice with this dish because it’s pretty salty and she was right that it tastes great with rice as it cuts the saltiness a bit. 8.5/10
- Pumpkin in Coconut Milk: We asked the waitress for dessert, I was hoping they’d have mango sticky rice, but unfortunately they didn’t. However, she recommended another dish consisting of kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) in a sweet coconut milk. I love the sweet and salty coconut milk that is prominent in Southeast Asian cuisines, so I loved this dessert. I think it might even be better than mango sticky rice which I love. The kabocha was cooked perfectly, it was tender and it went great with the coconut milk. I highly recommend this. 8.75/10
Overall, I really like Zabb Elee and while I haven’t tried all of the top Thai restaurants in NY, this is probably the best overall Thai I’ve had including Sripriphai, which I think while good is overrated although it is comparing apples to oranges to a certain degree as they serve different types of Thai food.
75 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10003