Chao Thai has always been my favorite Sripraphai alternative (Ayada is in that pantheon too, but I'm less fanatical about them then others) even though there's that one server who's smarmy about not giving you the requested spice level. I was hoping he'd remain stationed at the original, but there he was at the highly staffed Too (though oddly, not taking orders).
The menu is bigger and now formally includes a lot of the dishes that used to be on hand-written scraps of paper taped around the room. At the old Chao Thai their take on the crispy watercress/morning glory salad was always mysteriously unavailable even though always on the wall. Now, here it is, massive with crisp greens on the right, soft shrimp, squid and mussels on the left. The coating on the greens here is puffier like a beer batter, the cashews are crushed instead of whole and the shredded green mango was unexpected altogether. I like all salads of this ilk, but always compare them to Sripraphai's, which could be a mess, but is one I encountered first and always prefer.
Portions are generous, and in this case the crispy pork dominated the green beans. I think they just gave us all the remaining pork bits in this rich pad prik khing because it was getting late. The table that arrived after ours looked at our plate and gave us dirty looks (no hyperbole) after being told they were out of pork belly.
I'm not convinced this was pad kee mao. I would've sworn it was pad thai, but it was darker than the pad thai on others' plates and there weren't any peanuts in it. More sweet than hot and with those skinny rice noodles, it was the oddball of the evening.
Crunchy fried catfish rounds with Thai apple eggplant and bamboo shoots, on the other hand, was the biggest hit. Bony and crazy hot with lots of bitter krachai, it's not as accessible a dish as some of the others. Whole fish preparations are easier to love, but the catfish hunks have a snackable quality I enjoy.
In some ways Zabb Elee's existence is more welcome because Queens is already rife with good Thai and the East Village isn't (sadly, my new Clinton Hill Thai situation may be even worse than in Carroll Gardens--and no, Pok Pok isn't in Carroll Gardens [or Red Hook]).
And it's highly unique. The number of papaya salads, alone, is impressive, and with combinations I've never encountered elsewhere. See my new entry about som tum kortmuar (green papaya, pork cracklings, Thai sausage, eggplant, fried fish and noodles) on Real Cheap Eats.
The brightly flavored duck larb included varying textures of the roughly chopped meat, itself, as well as crispy bits of skin that were mixed in. They may not initially believe you if you say you want your food hot, but they will oblige if you insist you can handle a four (out of five). A five is probably brutal.
Chao Thai Too * 83-47 Dongan Ave., Elmhurst, NY
Zabb Elee * 75 Second Ave., New York, NY