|Duck Larb, Zabb Elee|
Talking about the food at the delicious new Nolita restaurant, Uncle Boons, my effusive recollections of dishes has been met more than once with the same question. “What exactly is Northern Thai food?”
This is not terribly surprising. Even as Thai restaurants proliferate across the United States and indeed the world (we once found Thai food in the former German settlement Swakopmund in Namibia!), there is still relatively little knowledge of the regional differences found within the country. We might know our Pad Thai from our Pad See-ew and our Massaman Curry from our Panang Curry, but do we know how they eat in Phuket versus Chang Mai, or Bangkok versus the Isan territories in the Northeast?
Luckily, a spate of restaurants recently popped up in New York City to try and help us with just this kind of understanding. Perhaps the most famous of the evangelists of regional Thai cuisine is Andy Ricker, of Pok Pok fame. I have to admit that even though his former restaurant Ping remains on my list of favorite restaurant memories of Portland, Oregon, I had put off going to his New York outposts until just this past week.
My mistake. Somehow I thought a New York version couldn’t come close to what Ricker was doing in his home base. This is of course, a ridiculous notion given that whether in New York or Portland Ricker is trying to recreate a cuisine from the other side of the world. And arguably with the ethnic diversity and density of New York, he has better access to hard-to-find ingredients here than just about anywhere.
Ricker’s Pok Pok Phat Thai takes a stab at that Bangkok noodle favorite that has become most associated with cheap and fast Thai food. The postage stamp-sized restaurant in the Lower Eastside does indeed serve noodles cheap and fast. But even then, he sticks as close to authentic as possible (sorry, no chicken version, the menu declares). I picked up one with ground pork and one with shrimp, both pungent with strong notes of tamarind, fish sauce, lime juice, and palm sugar, minus the cloying sticky sauce that bathes most generic pad thai. The whole package comes wrapped in a banana leaf, the perfect disposable plate. If it weren’t for the sub-zero New York temperatures, I could almost picture myself eating these noodles on a plastic chair on some street curb, in the tropical Bangkok night.
One of the last times John and I ate at Zabb Elee in the East Village, we were surprised to run into people we knew from San Francisco. Zabb Elee is far from being on the “hot restaurant” radar for locals let alone out-of-towners. The white interior tries so hard to be cool that it epically fails in the process. But where is does succeed is with a series of dishes that speak to the Northern Thai and Isan roots of the owners. Small, plump Isan sausages are sour and garlicky. Larb, the minced meat dish popular in Laos and the Northeast of Thailand, is fragrant with mint and lime. If you ask for it “Thai spicy” it might just make you cry. A favorite dish, crispy pork belly with pickled green peppercorns and tiny thumb sized eggplants is an indulgent, heavenly combination, best eaten with a side of sticky rice.
Last fall welcomed the funnily named Uncle Boon’s to the New York Thai scene. Concerned that this was some attempt to hipsterize Thai food, again, I put off eating there for quite some time. A couple weeks ago, however, I found myself in Nolita with friends looking for a place to eat. We decided to give it a try.
Uncle Boons is the brainchild of two former Per Se chefs and bears a faint resemblance to other restaurants opened by classically trained chefs who broke away from the staid formality of fine dining to reinvent more casual food, such as David Chang did with ramen at Momofuku.
At is essence, Uncle Boons feels a bit like the Thai version of an izakaya. If there was any question what we were in for, the first menu category- “drinking snacks”-offers a solid clue. Yes, you will be drinking beer (or a perfectly quaffable Monastrelle rose) to wash down the dull burn that builds from the abundant use of chilies. Chilies feature prominently in a classic Isan dish of larb (on this menu spelled "laab"), here in the form of minced lamb in a rich broth flecked with mint, shallot, and thinly sliced cucumber. A Crisp Sixpoint pilsner and a side of sticky rice help to neutralize the fire. An interlude of nam prik pla duuk, a dip made of catfish and chilies served with crisp vegetables and fried pig skin, is a nice respite from the onslaught of heat.
Take friends to Uncle Boons as they’ll likely order something you might not otherwise have tasted. On my first visit I’m grateful a friend ordered the somewhat dull sounding salad of rotisserie chicken with banana blossoms, cashews, and crispy shallots. The zest and spice were anything but boring- right now this is vying for “favorite item” in my book.
Meanwhile I gravitated towards the rarely seen blowfish tails on the grilled section of the menu. Moist and meaty served with an addictive dipping sauce of lime, garlic, and chili, this made for a sweet if not saccharine ending to the meal on both occasions I have dined.
Sadly Zabb Elee makes a concession to the generic Thai food eaters with a page of “Bangkok Rice and Noodles”. Even Pok Pok Phat Thai adjusted its stridently authentic philosophy to offer a vegan version of their phat thai, kind of beside the point in my opinion as without the fish sauce it would seem to lose its essence.
That these restaurants are even options is an enormous development for New Yorkers and those who visit here looking for a taste of regional Thai cuisine. So what is Northern Thai cuisine? What is Isan? To that I say, grab a plate of catfish larb at Zabb Elee and dip into a bowl of nam prik pla duuk at Uncle Boons and that chicken green curry and sticky sweet pad thai you thought was Thai food will soon be a distant memory.
Other places in the United States to find interesting regional Thai cuisine
Lotus of Siam (Las Vegas): The original pilgrimage for those looking to try out Isan and Northern Thai cuisine. They still offer a standard menu but turn to the back of expansive book for tastes of fermented Isan sausages and mouth-numbing green chili dip with pork skins.
Saffron (San Diego): Chef-owner Su-Mei Yu offers up lighter versions of Thai street food both at her noodle-focused restaurant and a rotisserie chicken shop next door. Stop by during Thai New Year for daily specials rarely seen at American Thai restaurants that are only featured during that one week of the year.
Pok Pok (Portland, Oregon): Since my favorite Andy Ricker restaurant, Ping, a Thai-Vietnamese streetfood concept, is now closed, the original Pok Pok must take up the mantle of favorite Portland restaurant. The classics like papaya salad have a well deserved reputation for excellence. I also found the Khao Soi, a mild curried noodle soup native to the north to be delicious.
Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell