Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Isaan It Wonderful?

Isaan is the Northeastern region of Thailand. It's near Laos, and the Isaan people are of Lao descent. Isaan cuisine is somewhat distinct from the central or southern Thai food we're most familiar with, though some dishes, like labb (pungent ground meat or fish salads) have found their way onto most Thai menus. Zabb Queens, in Jackson Heights, serves a full menu of Isaan dishes (though they spell it Esan), mixed in with more familiar Thai dishes (no real distinction is made, so a little preparation and study, as well as assistance from the staff, is needed to maximize the Isaan ordering experience).

Zabb is a small, narrow place, and our party of eight dominated the restaurant on a quiet Tuesday night. We had the opportunity to try a good sampling from the large menu, but there's plenty more to return for. As salads are a major component of Isaan cuisine they made up a large part of our meal.

We ordered several items from the appetizers portion of the menu. The moo lob dann (fried seasoned pork with spicy sauce on the side) was basically pork McNuggets--tasty, though not really something I'd order again. The grilled beef "super balls" had a dense, appropriately bouncy consistency, like fish balls (could it have been from tapioca starch?) and provided a pleasant nibble. Grilled skewered chicken livers and hearts, served with dipping sauces, were a mixed bag. The livers were too dry, but the hearts had soul.

The som tum seafood is a green papaya salad with shrimp and squid, but by the time it got to me all that was left was the delightfully spicy and refreshing papaya shreds (it was also supposed to have salted crab, but I didn't see any on the plate). The mango salad with shrimp had an appealing sweet/spicy duality. The yum nam kao tod, a salad with pork and chicken skin and crispy rice, was my favorite dish of the evening. It had an amazingly complex mix of flavors and textures. Like most of the salads, it had a seriously spicy kick. I had asked the waitress to make everything "Thai spicy," which sat well with most of the diners, though the heat did challenge a couple of my companions from time to time. The chicken labb, a room-temperature minced meat salad, was perfectly spicy and astringent, without any of the unwelcome sweetness you'll find in the dish at most Thai restaurants in the U.S.

The fried rice with Thai sausage delivered more than the name promised, with a spicy but mellow overall flavor and small pieces of sweet sausage mixed in. Also excellent was what the waitress told me was the only Isaan noodle dish on the menu, basically a spicier, bolder spin on pad Thai.

I'd read in several places that the curries are best avoided, as they're not the restaurant's strong suit since they're not Isaan dishes. But we did order duck with red curry paste because another duck dish we had wanted was unavailable. It wasn't at all bad, but it was far from the highlight of the meal. The same can be said of the chunks of pig leg meat with basil, which had a sauce that was too thick for my taste. We had ordered this because the pig leg with Chinese broccoli and preserved mustard green was not available.

I think I made the right choice by leaning heavily on the salads, but the fried rice and noodle dishes were a very pleasant surprise. We also had sticky rice with our meal, the preferred rice preparation of the region.

The icing on the cake, as it were, was the very satisfying coconut ice cream with fried banana rolls (in spring roll skins) that most of us had for dessert.

Zabb Queens 7128 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights


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