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Zabb: Spicing up Elmhurst the Thai way

By Suzanne Parker

Any town may have Thai restaurants, but can they say they have an Esan Thai restaurant serving the cuisine of the northeast of Thailand? Huh? Well, Queens can. Zabb, recently opened in Elmhurst, specializes in Esan cuisine. Eat your heart out, Manhattan – or come to Queens.Don't be put off by the less-than-glamorous exterior. Once inside, you'll see that Zabb has transformed its tiny sliver of space into sleekly minimalist surroundings. In keeping with the small-is-beautiful theme, tiny vases of fresh flowers enhance each table. An important tenet of Thai cuisine is that it should be pleasing to all the senses, including the eye, and that is taken to heart here.Esan (also sometimes spelled Isan or Isaan), means the northeast in Thai language and it is an area comprising 17 provinces and situated on the Khorat plateau.A word of warning. Properly prepared Thai food, and especially Esan Thai, is hot, hot, hot. If you don't like hot food, fuggedaboutit. Read no further. However, if gastronomic heat brings tears to your eyes, joy to your heart and drool to your lips, read on. Zabb caters mainly to a Thai clientele. The sit-down menu is in Thai, and “foreigners” must make do with the takeout menu. At least one item on the Thai menu isn't on the takeout menu. On our first visit, while enjoying a perfectly delicious meal, we couldn't help wondering what all the Thai people were eating. On virtually every table there was an electric pot that diners were busily adding things to and taking things out of. I asked our server, who explained it was called jaow Esan soup, the Thai version of a hot pot. A pot of simmering spicy broth is placed on the table accompanied by platters of seafood, vegetables and rice noodles, which the diner cooks in the soup. This is an extremely healthy dish that is high in nutrition and virtually fat free. We just had to come back and try it. The flavor of the broth is so intense that it makes up for the simplicity of the other ingredients, which rely on their freshness for their appeal. The main vegetables are Chinese watercress and Thai basil. The marine life is shrimp, scallops, and skate. Ask for the “steamboat,” and they'll know what you mean. When we ordered it on our second visit, our neighboring Thai diners asked us if we had been to Thailand. I felt like I had cracked the code.Some of the dishes served at Zabb that are famously Esan are laab, som tum, and Esan sausage. Laab is a warm spicy salad (in the sense that chicken salad or tuna salad are salads) that can be made with catfish, duck, pork, chicken or beef. It has an interestingly granular texture with is achieved with a uniquely Thai ingredient-roasted ground rice. Som tum, probably Esan's most famous dish, is a lively salad of green papaya mixed with salted crab, chili, peanut and lime juice. It perfectly balances the Thai mix of sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors, and especially heat, the objective of any Thai dish. The Esan sausage is spicy and garlicky with that uniquely Thai herbal afterburn. The meaty texture is similar to that of an Italian sausage, and there is rice mixed in with the pork.We also tried the green curry, the least incendiary on the list. It was among the best I've ever eaten (the best being the one made by my teacher at a Thai cooking lesson). The harmony of flavors built to a crescendo. We chose chicken, but there is a choice of chicken, beef, pork or seafood.Sticky rice is eaten with everything. Make sure you order some. Alternating bites of rice with the hot stuff helps you to keep your cool. It comes in a lidded straw container, and it is perfectly permissible to pull off chunks with your fingers. Thais eat with a spoon and a fork, not chopsticks, although they use them to lift food in and out of the hot pot. You will see Thais transferring bits of food from the platter with a fork, and eating it with the spoon. It is also not frowned upon to pick up things like raw vegetables with your fingers.Dessert at Zabb is ice cream or ice cream. After all that heat, it's just the thing to soothe a sore palate. And don't expect plain old ice cream. It's a scoop of coconut, green tea or cappuccino, garnished with dollops of exotic tropical fruits like jackfruit and sweet palm.The Bottom LineOnce in a while a restaurant comes along that really wakes up my jaded palate, and it's dirt cheap to boot. The name says it all, “Zabb,” which, in the Esan dialect, means “delicious!”Zabb71-28 Roosevelt Ave.Elmhurst718-426-7992Cuisine: Esan ThaiSetting: Tiny, but sleek and attractively appointedService: Friendly and accommodatingHours: 11:30 a.m. to 3 a.m., seven daysReservations: NoAlcohol: No license yet, BYOBParking: StreetDress: CasualChildren: WelcomeMusic: No, plasma TV tuned to Thai channelTakeout: YesCredit cards: NoNoise level: AcceptableHandicap accessible: YesRecommended DishesLaabÉ$8 to $10Som tumÉ$7.50Thai sausageÉ$7Green curryÉ$7 w/meat or $9 w/seafoodJaow Esan soup (Steamboat)É$25 (enough for 2)Sticky rice (a must)É$1.50Green tea ice cream w/ tropical fruitÉ$2.50

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