There’s no doubt that with its cornucopia of restaurants and eateries serving up authentic global fare, the “World’s Borough” is a foodie’s heaven. This series explores Queens’ hottest new spots — and there’s a story worth knowing behind each one of those diverse small businesses.
Over the past decade, New York City’s Thai restaurant scene has seen a steady rise of Isan cuisine.
If you have a craving for some elevated northeastern Thai food and a yen for the true flavors of fiery Isan-style home cooking, then you and your friends should check out a popular Isan-Thai restaurant, aptly called Zaab Zaab, which means tasty or delicious. Nestled along Elmhurst’s “Little Thailand Way,” at 76-04 Woodside Ave., this unassuming spot has become one of the City’s newest Isan additions since opening its doors back in April. Aside from the great eats, patrons love its vibrant, welcoming atmosphere and whimsical ceiling mural, painted by a local Thai artist.
“My partner [and co-owner] Pei Shan Wei and I decided to open something that would be unique to the community. We felt that we needed to connect to the community, having served many meals during the lockdowns,” Elmhurst resident Bryan Chunton, who was born in Thailand and grew up in Woodside, told QNS, noting that they continue to help the under-served and elderly through acts of charity and kindness.
With its emphasis on seafood and a multi-textured spin on traditional duck dishes, Zaab Zaab serves up dishes that go beyond run-of-the-mill Thai fare. It’s been designated as a “Bib Gourmand” — a restaurant of good quality and value — in the 2022 Michelin Guide USA. Yet rumor has it there’s been quite a bit of competition from other popular Thai kitchens along Woodside Avenue and Broadway.
But Chunton pointed out that Zaab Zaab is special because they “introduce true Isan flavor using authentic, fresh herbs and spices, and source out flavorful ingredients, like Thai hot basil, lemongrass, galangal, Siamese neem, lemon basil, holy basil, just to name a few.” In addition, he said that their decision to make one of their line cooks a chef, who would create authentic Isan cuisine from his hometown, was an important one. “It was a perfect match,” Chunton added.
Perhaps the star of the show is Elmhurst chef Aniwat Khotsopha, who grew up in the Isan capital of Udon Thani and worked in Bangkok hotels for over 20 years. You should sample his tasty signature dishes, like the baked fish encrusted with salt and stuffed with lemongrass, and the succulent larb ped Udon (spicy duck salad) – hand-chopped duck breast with fresh herbs and spices. But tempting mainstays, like the prawn pad Thai and rotisserie chicken marinated in coriander and lemongrass, shouldn’t be overlooked.
Chunton said he was raised in the restaurant industry, as his parents owned one of the first Thai restaurants on Ninth Avenue, in Hell’s Kitchen.
“You can say I was born in the business, where I learned the fundamentals of hospitality and the art of cooking,” he shared. The budding entrepreneur dreamed of opening his own restaurant one day. Eventually, he decided that Elmhurst’s “Little Thai Way” would be a great location within that vastly Hispanic neighborhood, which The New York Times has described as the “crossroads of the world.”
“Finally, I was lucky to find a perfect spot!” he added, describing Zaab Zaab’s atmosphere as “festive, and reflecting the local vibe of Isan-Thai, with free-floating art on the ceiling and the sound of both traditional and modern Isan music” that makes you feel like you’re really there.
The restaurant, which got rave reviews from Eater and The New York Times, has expanded to Williamsburg, where a standalone spot debuted in September. Next up: a spacious stand at the new Tangram mall in Flushing. According to the owner, the eatery’s newest iteration, which is supposed to attract large lunch crowds, is still under construction. He said that he’s hoping it will open by “the Chinese New Year” (which starts Jan. 22, 2023).
Some of Zaab Zaab’s popular offerings, like the Mieng Pla Pow, which is a salted tilapia dish served with lettuce, rice noodles and a bed of herbs (dill, cilantro and mint), have become real crowd-pleasers. Patrons make lettuce wraps filled with the herbs and fish and dip them in one of the two sauces provided, like the spicy green sauce; the Kapow, a dish of chopped ribeye stir-fried with garlic, basil, fish sauce and other flavors, is another bestseller.
“During the pandemic, we were delivering food to hospitals throughout the city. I have seen that a meal can bring joy to one’s life. So, when the restaurant reopened, I thought it was important to make food where it transports you to a place that felt like home,” Chunton explained. “I had a patron say to me with a big smile, ‘I remember this sauce when my grandma made it.’ The joy of seeing that makes my day.”
Prices range from $7 to $30. Zaab Zaab offers delivery and takeout options, as well as outdoor dining.