Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Love that Larb

It was a Saturday afternoon. I had arranged to meet Manda on the 7 train for a trip to Flushing, to try some of the stalls at the Chinese food courts, where little English is spoken and hard-to-find specialties from many parts of China are represented. Neither of us had ever done the Flushing malls before.

But our train was held up at one of the earlier Queens stations for quite a while, and as usual it took at least ten minutes before we got an explanation. And then the announcement came: a sick passenger on a train ahead of us. Jesus, I thought, the sick passenger goes out on weekends too?

We were told the train would go as far as Broadway-Roosevelt, then turn back to Manhattan. Subsequent trains, they claimed, would go all the way. But by the time we got to Roosevelt, in Jackson Heights, we were starving, so we decided to get off and eat in the neighborhood. After all, there were plenty of options nearby. We could do the Flushing malls another time.

Where to go in Jackson Heights? We didn't want Indian or Korean. So we headed to Zabb, a place we'd both liked in the past, for Northeastern Thai. But Zabb, it turns out, is closed for lunch on weekends. I didn't suggest Himalayan Yak, down the block, because I think Manda didn't particularly care for it when we went with a group.

Finally we decided to take a short walk to Elmhurst, to try a Javanese noodle joint on Whitney Avenue, a few doors down from Minangasli (which has apparently changed ownership since I reviewed it). But as we turned onto Whitney from Broadway Manda noticed a Thai restaurant with a window full of rave reviews. "Do you want to try it?" she asked. Sure. We'd already set the Flushing malls aside for another day, we'd already had our original Thai hopes dashed, surely we could put Mie Jakarta on the back burner and give Chao Thai a try.

We ordered four dishes: a duck salad, a chicken larb, and two "over rice" dishes. The rice dishes generally consist of a smaller portion of a main course served on a plate with rice, so I figured two really counted as one. Still, it was a lot of food.

The duck salad was Manda's first choice, as it's her favorite dish at Zabb. Chao's version was good, but very different from Zabb's--a much higher meat to salad ratio at Chao Thai. She also wanted a green vegetable, so we ordered the pork with Chinese broccoli over rice. Quite good, with lots of garlic. My rice dish of choice was the pig leg, a favorite of mine at Sripraphai. I found Chao's didn't compare, yet Manda preferred this version. It was served with a fruity, slightly spicy side sauce; I prefer the star-anise laden brown sauce at Sripraphai. Thai pork leg dishes can be delicious, but prepare yourself for lots of fat.

And then there was the larb.

Larb, or laab, is an Isan (Lao and Northeastern Thai) dish, extremely popular in those places, and also a standard menu item at Thai restaurants everywhere. It's made with minced meat or fish, dressed with fish sauce and lime, and flavored with chilis and mint as the main seasonings. Ground toasted rice gives it a bit of crunch. It's traditionally served warm--not cold, not hot.

The chicken larb at Chao Thai was probably the best larb I've ever had outside of Thailand. It had a perfect balance of hot spice, tartness, astringency and mint flavor. A good larb is all about the balance. The temperature was just right, too.

I've had larbs where the chili spice overwhelmed the other components or where the tanginess was too much in the mix, but compared to some those were decent. I've also had larbs that were flavorless, that were served cold and obviously mass-prepared in advance, and at least one where the meat was shredded instead of minced and served with a sweet-spicy red sauce.

Based on the world-class larb and the quality of the few other things I tried, Chao Thai is definitely on my list for further exploration.

Chao Thai
85-03 Whitney Avenue
(718) 424-4999


Anonymous Woodside Al said...

Love Chao Thai. They also make a truly great papaya salad. They used to be notably spicier than other Thai places, but it seems that they've toned things down a bit in recent years. Still great food though. I live too close to Sri and Zabb to often go anywhere else, but if I'm down in Elmhurst Chao is really high on my list.

1:01 PM  

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