Not to be a total hipster, but I liked Zabb Elee before it was cool. Mostly because I lived in the totally shitty, falling down building over the restaurant when it moved in. Zabb Elee replaced an americanized thai joint — the kind of place where I would get $5 pad see ew to go, and someone was walking out the kitchen with my lunch before I had even finished ordering.
So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that the space was converted to an “authentic” northern Thai restaurant. I’ve never been to Thailand, but I was beyond excited to have a thai-place-that-doesn’t-serve-pad-thai in the building. For the first couple of months, it was impossible to get in — wait times hovered at over an hour no matter what time we showed up. But I lived just upstairs, so it was no problemo to head up, watch an episode of Parks and Rec, and then come back down to check on the table. I got one taste, and I’ve been coming back ever since! A perfect place to bring out-of-towners looking for something more than plain ol’ NYC pasta and red sauce, and an easy neighborhood spot to meet a friend for something spicy and delicious. These days, it’s pretty easy to get a table. The Boyfriend and I dropped in last Friday night for a late dinner and the place was half empty. The buzz might have dropped off, but the food is as delightful and interesting as ever.
On Friday, we got our three favorite dishes to share — a spicy papaya salad, a cold beef larb salad, and a crispy pork dish with rice. When I say the papaya salad was spicy, I am not shittin’ you. It is spicy — but balanced with cool strands of green papaya, fermented fish sauce and a sprinkling of fresh mint and cilantro. Just steer clear of the chili seeds floating in the sauce… We also got an order of beef larb — a salad of minced-beef, red onions, mint and cucumbers served cold in a tangy lime sauce. I know, it sounds weird, but it’s so refreshing. (Beef larb and papaya salad pictured above.) And we finished with one of Zabb Elee’s “specialty” dishes, crispy pork with eggplant. The pork was just crispy enough — chewy and meaty, but not fried until it crackles — served in a dark curry sauce with eggplant and basil.
If you’re in the East Village and you want a cheap, delicious, interesting thai dinner, Zabb Elee is where it’s at. Just don’t come expecting americanized asian food — there isn’t a pad thai or coconut curry to be found.
What we’ll get again (and, let’s face it, what we always get): beef larb (nuer larb), papaya salad (som tum thai), spicy pork (pad ped moo krob), plus sticky rice for me and plain white rice for the ol’ ball and chain.
75 Second Avenue, between 4th and 5th