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Zabb Elee: The Thai Food You Haven’t Tasted

Zabb Elee does not serve pad see eew, the dish made with wide rice noodles, a protein of choice and a hefty dose of oyster sauce. We found that out not long after we sat down at this cheery East Village restaurant. I should say that one of my guests found that out; after reading an article in the New York Times, I knew that Zabb Elee, which also has a location in Queens, specialized in food from Isan, a region in northeast Thailand. The food has Laotian influences, making it much different than the food serve in the ubiquitous Thai-American restaurant. That is exactly why I dragged my great uncle, Boureka and his partner Fancy Fresser there to begin with.

Boureka and Fancy Fresser were stopping in New York on their way back to the Bay Area from Israel, but they gamely agreed to take the train down to the East Village to meet Empanada Boy and me as I satisfied my craving for larb and green papaya salad. If Fancy Fresser was disappointed by the unavailability of pad see eew, she was a good sport and didn’t show it. After EB and I got our Thai and Laotian beers (Chang and Beerlao, respectively), we set about ordering. We started with the beef larb and the som tom muazuar. Larb is a minced-meat salad, made spicy and tangy with red onion, chile, lime and cilantro. While the flavor of the beef version was excellent, it looked a little more meager and boring than the images of the duck one from the Times and the opulent-looking pork and catfish options pictured on the menu. But then, I must save something for next time. Som tum is green papaya salad, and the version we got had barbecue pork and shrimp (Jewish dream), rice noodles, tomatoes and long beans. I’ve had green papaya salad many times, but this was by far the most eye-catching. The flavors were nuanced: pungent (fish sauce), bracing (lime juice, garlic) and sweet (palm sugar). The overall effect was a vibrant symphony of freshness.

Our next course, the pa ped moo korb, brought the meal back down to earth with its savory depth. This dish was composed of pork crisped on the outside and reduced inside to a nearly unrecognizable (yet somehow satisfying) chewiness. This was combined with Thai eggplant, wild ginger, basil and curry. We ordered the dish medium-spicy to accommodate all at the table, but the next time I go, I am pulling out all the spicy stops. A little bit of fire would add another amazing dimension to this already excellent combination of flavors and textures.

The people sitting at the table next to us inspired us to order our final dish because they were eating it when we walked in: a whole grilled tilapia stuffed with tamarind sauce, as well as Thai basil, onions, cilantro and other herbs. Rectangular pieces of the fish’s flesh were cut off the skeleton and fried separately into succulent, crispy morsels. The rest of the fish was crispy enough that one could pick up sections of skeleton and suck the meat and fried bits right off the bone. And, while I don’t typically eat the head itself, I am not one to let a good fish cheek go to waste. (I am Daddy Salmon’s daughter, after all.) EB and I extracted these tender bits of meat and ate them before pronouncing ourselves done with the meal. A few fish bones and some lettuce garnishes were pretty much all we had to show for it at that point.

For dessert, we decided to head back up the street to a place where Fancy Fresser had seen a sign whose bold assertion had caught her eye: “NY’s Best Egg Cream,” it read. To my surprise, this sign stood outside Gem Spa, an old-school newspaper stand at the corner of 2nd Ave. and St. Marks Place. We cautiously walked inside and inquired as to whether they actually did serve the city’s best egg cream. The guy behind the counter solemnly nodded in reply. Fancy Fresser and Boureka both got chocolate, and EB got vanilla. Those are the only two flavors. Having just made sure our plates were scraped clean at Zabb Elee, I got tastes of both of them. I am not an egg cream connoisseur, but I didn’t think these were half bad, based what I know of the tradition. Though their name might imply otherwise, egg creams are made with milk, seltzer water and chocolate syrup (or other flavoring of choice). Fancy Fresser knew enough to ask the guy at Gem Spa whether the chocolate was Fox’s U-Bet Chocolate Syrup, considered an essential ingredient by egg-cream purists. Indeed it was. To my taste, the chocolate was not sufficiently chocolate-y and the vanilla was just a touch too subtle, but perhaps my palate simply wasn’t prepared to scale back to an egg cream after the riotous party that was Zabb Elee.

Zabb Elee
75 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Gem Spa
131 2nd Ave.
New York, NY 10003

Zabb Elee on Urbanspoon

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