The steady and pulsating rise of Isan cuisine has been the main story of New York’s Thai restaurant scene for the past decade.
There have been significant exceptions, such as northern Thai specialist Lamoon in Queens, which recently closed after the cost of importing fire ant eggs and other hard-to-find ingredients. skyrocketed, and the pan-regional Ugly Baby, which is still gleefully setting fire to the faces of its customers in Brooklyn. Take a few steps back, however, and you can see a clear trend line toward the offal-stuffed larbs, papaya salads bristling with salty black crabs, and sticky rice boots that mark the cuisine of northeast China. Thailand.
That trajectory hit a new high with the April arrival of Zaab Zaab in Elmhurst, Queens. The chef, Aniwat Khotsopa, grew up in the town of Isan Udon Thani and is a gifted manipulator of the textural depth and contrapuntal flavors of his home region.
Her take on larb ped udon, her hometown favorite ground duck salad, is powerful and nuanced at the same time. To the small pebbles of duck meat, he adds crunchy slivers of fried duck skin and soft, dense slices of duck liver. Roasted chiles are used in abundance, but they don’t overshadow other seasonings, as they sometimes can. Instead, they’re held in a taut balance by the freshness of mint and charred galangal, the floral scent of lime leaves, and the pungent bitterness of sawtooth grass, also known as of culantro.
Cooks often talk about the balance between hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors in Thai cuisine; Mr. Khotsopa presents compelling arguments to add bitterness to the list. Like other larbs he makes with beef, pork or chicken, larb ped udon can and should be made into mouth-sized bundles with greens from a basket of lettuce and herbs. With sprigs of mint, coriander and dill – Zaab Zaab makes excellent use of dill – is a sprig with long, thin, spear-shaped green leaves. It’s sadao, and a single leaf will add a melancholic note of bitterness that will make other herbs even more refreshing.
Pei Wei, owner of the restaurant with Bryan Chunton, stopped by my table one evening to point out the sadao and a few other ingredients that she says take effort to source. Many customers come from Thailand, she said, and that helps show that Zaab Zaab is the real thing. After all, there is plenty of competition from other great Thai spots along Woodside Avenue and Broadway. The merger of a restaurant hall serving one of the largest Thai communities in the city was almost certainly a prerequisite for the emergence of a cuisine as accomplished as Zaab Zaab’s.
Mr. Khotsopa worked as a line cook at another restaurant owned by Ms. Wei and Mr. Chunton, Tiger prawn in Brooklyn, when a chicken larb he cooked for a staff meal caught their eye. The partners built Zaab Zaab for him by quickly redeveloping a space where they had recently run a Hainanese chicken restaurant. This explains the preponderance of chicken heads in the ceiling fresco. (This is the work of a local Thai-born artist named Sarasin Chatwichitkoon, who has painted several other restaurants on this strip.)
Mr. Khotsopa has been waiting for a trainer to call him minors for some time; he spent a decade as a wok cook in Jaiya thai in Manhattan and another decade in a luxury hotel in Bangkok, with shorter stays elsewhere in Bangkok and in a Thai restaurant at State College, Pennsylvania. Before Zaab Zaab, however, he had never worked as a chef or cooked a predominantly Isan menu.
You know you’re in the hands of a skilled chef when you see how many techniques Mr. Khotsopa nails in his rather small kitchen.
Out of the grill comes goong pow, two prawns the size of Italian sausages, their heads dripping with marigold-colored grease that I would happily spread on toast and eat for breakfast. They’re served with a tangy, herbaceous nam jim, one of many glistening, faceted gems in Mr. Khotsopa’s sauce repertoire. Nuer yang, the grilled steak dish known as crying tiger, is made with ribeye and comes with two types of jaew dipping sauce, one tangy and slightly spicy, the other darker, with a bitterness similar to that of an espresso.
The rotisserie, inherited from the latest incarnation of the kitchen, produces an intensely aromatic chicken rubbed in a paste of white pepper, lemongrass and coriander root, as well as a remarkable little catfish, flavored from the inside by a stuffing of pandan leaves and the outside by a mixture of cumin and white pepper rubbed in deep slashes into the dense, oily flesh.
In any Isan cuisine, the krok – a mortar of stone, wood or, like the krok in Zaab Zaab, clay – is an essential tool, the place where sticks of unripe papaya are hammered with a wooden pestle until they bend and accept the seasonings cook the bends with. Not that the seasonings at Zaab Zaab are particularly shy: a profusion of sliced cherry red bird’s-eye chiles; maybe penny-sized black paddy crabs pickled in brine; a cool lime shower; and of course some big fish sauce slugs. There’s regular fish sauce, and then there’s an extra strong variety called pla ra, fermented in Mr. Khotsopa’s kitchen. The first taste of Zaab Zaab’s pla ra may make your head spin, but with the second, you’ll never want papaya salad made any other way.
From the wok come two of the restaurant’s only non-Isan items. There’s a stellar take on what the menu calls kapow, one of many names for stir-fried beef with basil. Zaab Zaab’s beef is ground, not ground, and the herb is the more assertive, almost numbing purple-stemmed holy basil. And anyone who has given up on finding a great Pad Thai in New York should definitely check out Zaab Zaab’s, with unusually deep flavors carried by the tart, fruity taste of tamarind.
Dishes can be ordered three ways: Spicy, Spicy Isan, or “Zaab Zaab for those who dare,” as the menu says. Across the board, Mr. Khotsopa’s food is so tasty that the heat is often the third or fourth thing you notice.
The the menu invites you to go further, explore the hor moks, packets of glutinous rice flour flavored with dill and dill steamed in banana leaf wrappers; the hot pots, each with its own fragrant seasoned broth; the gaeng oms, between herb soup and curry; nam prik noom, a puree of green and red chili peppers scooped up with golden curls of fried pork rind. Those who feast on tripe, spleen, gizzards and chicken legs will find their happiness at Zaab Zaab. Those who avoid them will too.
There’s even a plate of fries dusted with a salty, spicy, and tangy magic powder. Can fries be Thai? If you taste them one by one with a bottle of Leo blond beer, the Thais’ favorite beer, you might be convinced.