RESTAURANT: Zabb Thai
LOCATION: 7218 Roosevelt Ave. Jackson Heights, NY 11372
DATE: April 17, 2005
FOOD: Moo Dad (fried marinated pork with spicy sauce); Thai Sausage; Chicken Labb Spicy Salad; Seafood Green Curry; Drunken Noodles with Chicken
BEVERAGE: Longan Juice (Asian Fruit Juice)
It seems like every time I take the 7 train it’s for Thai food. In January, the last time I was on the Queens bound subway, it was for Sripraphai and what became the greatest Thai cuisine I’ve ever enjoyed. This time, the weather was a lot nicer, but the expectations were just as high. Zabb, the only Thai restaurant in the city to serve Esan cuisine, had a lot to live up to.
I’m happy to say, that for the most part it did. While the food failed to reach the breathtaking heights of Sripraphai, Zabb offered up uniquely tasty and incredibly spicy dishes. Not surprisingly, the restaurant especially excelled at the authentic Esan combinations of ground pork and chicken and tongue burning herbs. In the end, I’d recommend focusing on the Esan options exclusively, as these are really the feature acts of the menu.
The Moo Dad was the best dish of the entire evening. Thin strips of pork, fried crisp and slightly chewy, packed a flavor punch, especially when we added the spicy sauce accompaniment. This was almost Thai Tapas or Asian bar food, the perfect thing to munch on before a night of heavy drinking (or even afterwards). Though fried, the dish was far from oily, and light enough to eat on a warm day. The longan juice, an overly sweet asian fruit concoction, helped to put out the fire. The Thai sausage, deceptively spicy with a cuttingly hot aftertaste, seemed to be the second cousin of eastern European kielbasa. It was also an ideal snack, served with red onions, beautifully fresh ginger slices, cilantro, and roasted peanuts. This mix would have gone great while watching a Redskins victory or more appropriately, a Mets loss to the Nationals at Shea.
Prior to the dinner, I was most excited about trying the Labb. This is one of many of the fiery meat salads common in Esan food. Though served on a large leaf of Romaine lettuce, the Labb was as much a “salad” in the conventional American sense as Brando and Aston Kutcher and both actors. The emphasis was on the minced chicken, not vegetables. Unlike the sausage, there was nothing subtle about the degree of heat in the Labb. Teary eyes, cleared nasal passages, and glasses if not gallons of water would be expecting while eating this dish. But the taste was wonderful and surprising, even if a bit overwhelming. The seafood green curry, the mildest of Zabb’s curries, was still a blaze. It didn’t do much for me however, with too many flavors competing for attention.
Zabb’s drunken noodles were Robin to Sripraphai’s Batman version of the dish. Like Robin, they were good without being special, most likely incapable of even a successful “Joey”-like spin-off unless frequent celebrity guest were used to boost ratings, better in conjunction with the entire meal than on their own. In Zabb’s rendition, the flavoring wasn’t evenly distributed throughout the noodles, meaning some bites had too much basil, while in others I could barely taste the herb. The dish had a good level of spiciness, but again, the levels varied inconsistently with each bite. The dish has always been a favorite of mine because it shows the similarity and links between Asian noodles and Italian. But in Zabb’s dish, the tomato wasn’t emphasized enough. Certain bites were wonderful and I’d probably have loved the dish if I had never had drunken noodles before. But a Chinese version at New Green Bo and Sriphraphi’s memorable preparation of the flat noodles ran circles around Zabb’s.
I credit Zabb for a host of reasons, and not just for its food. I appreciated that this was authentic Thai, mouth burning heat included, and not some dumbed down American bastardization. It’s also commendable that Zabb has fearlessly brought Esan to an already overcrowded New York Thai scene. And Zabb shouldn’t be faulted because of Sriphraphi’s brilliance. Steinbeck is still a great read even after you’ve discovered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s genius. So Zabb is definitely worth the trip on the 7. Just make sure you ask for plenty of water.