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Zabb Thai

1/2 “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me” was all I could spit out while approaching Roosevelt Avenue. Even from a block away I was getting an unpleasant eyeful of at least 40 diners-to-be swarming the sidewalk in front of Sripraphai. Seriously?

I know the place’s popularity seems to grow exponentially each year and that you get what you’re asking for on a Saturday night even on a holiday weekend, but no, I wasn’t buying the insanity. It’s not Sripraphai’s problem that they’ve become such a success but I can’t tolerate the hour waiting thing even for my most favorite salad in the world (next to Resto’s crispy pig’s ear). I felt tired and defeated without even stepping into the fray.

Quick plan B: Zabb just down the road. No crowd, and in their favor they keep late night hours and are BYOB (which I didn’t realize until we’d already sat down). Curries aren’t their strength, as the focus is more Northern Thai, but fiery herby salads and stir-fries are good too.

Zabb crispy pork

Moo dad. I was thinking these would be crispy like skin-on pork belly in little chunks, but these pork strips were breaded and fried and served with chile sauce. This could’ve been heavy and greasy a la chicken fried steak but the coating was light and the meat was juicy. And I really liked that we got a full container of the sauce with our leftovers. I’m always disappointed when I bring home uneaten steak from Argentine parrillas and there’s no chimichurri included in the bag.

Zabb catfish mango salad

I always mean to order the catfish mango salad at Sripraphai but can never forgo the crispy watercress, it’s a catch 22. I love how the fish has been fried unrecognizably into fluff. I once made this at home a million years ago. Getting the catfish into this state wasn’t the hard part—it was shredding the mango properly. I need a tool like this. Crisp, salty and fatty hit with sweet fruit and rich cashews? I love that combination.

Zabb duck salad

No, this duck salad wasn’t a replacement for my beloved awesomely rich duck, eggplant and bamboo shoot curry. The flavors were all there, maybe I just wanted those particular vegetables mixed with the poultry.

Zabb chicken larb

We weren’t asked about spice levels and forgot to make any mention. The chicken larb was the only dish that seemed too mild.

I have zero business sense but judging from the freak show in front of Sripraphai there is clearly a market for authentic Thai food for non-Thais. And even though there’s a glut of so-so Thai already in my neighborhood, that would be my target area. If I knew how to open a restaurant and import cooks from Thailand I would channel my inner Chodorow and make it happen.

Which reminds me, I’m 99% sure I’m going to Thailand later this year. I’d been planning on Malaysia but had my mind changed at the last minute. Why not Thailand? At least I that’s what I thought until all hell broke loose this week. But I went to Singapore during the SARS scare, particularly because the flight was dirt cheap. Maybe I can work this civil unrest thing to my financial advantage. Ha, there's always the free food for protesters angle. (8/30/08)

It's hard not to compare Zabb to Sripraphai. Theyre walking distance from each other and both have an air of authenticity. Anyone who pays a visit to either place probably isnt looking for pad thai, they know what theyre doing. (Neighboring customers asking for unwarranted chopsticks used to bust my chops, but the new bee in my bonnet is diners requesting brown rice and no fish sauce. If you want brown rice and fish sauce-less food, fine, but thats vegan hippy Asian not Thai.) However, the two restaurants are really different beasts, and complimentary ones at that.

I don't claim to be a regional Thai food expert, but Zabb is primarily Esan (their spelling, or Isaan, depending), which is northern food, Laotian-like (as if I've eaten tons of Laotian in my time). The style is less reliant on coconut milk and the sweetness of Bangkok fare, like most of the dishes I think Americans are familiar with. In the north, salads or yums prevail. Zabb practically has enough yums that you could try one a day for a month.

There were only two of us so we couldnt go hog wild with sampling. (I'm always afraid of looking like a pig, but after asking for our labb (their spelling—I tend towards larb) to be wrapped up we were asked “didnt you like it?” Ah, you cant win.) We tried chicken larb, fried pork with spicy dipping sauce (this is dubbed moo dad on their website, but not on the menu, which is much larger than what appears on the web. Moo dad just sounds fun), drunken noodles and papaya salad with seafood. All were tasty, but we felt the heat was lacking. Everything needed to be punchier. I don't know if this was because we werent Thai or if thats the standard preparation. I think it was toned down.

An unintended bonus to this cuisine, if you care about that sort of thing, is that its pretty darn healthy (minus the fried pork, of course). The flavors are fresh and are primarily based on lime juice, fish sauce and chiles. Oil and coconut milk are absent in many dishes. I avoided the curries because I don't think thats their strength, but to be honest I did miss some of the richness of some of my Sripraphai faves like the duck curry with eggplant.

We were the only diners in the restaurant besides a group of motorcycle guys that might or might not have been affiliated with Zabb. So, we got almost too much attention, like when youre afraid to look away from the table or itll be interpreted as beckoning the waitress. Luckily, the vibe relaxed part way through the meal, maybe even too much, the peculiar musak-y Carpenters covers cd (I hate to generalize, but I'm starting to think there's an Asian-Carpenters connection. They played them nonstop at Upi Jaya, an Indonesian restaurant and theyre frequently on at Hong Kong Supermarket in NJ) was turned off in favor of Thai TV. TV in restaurants doesnt bother me, though I know some have issues with it.

The two restaurants have different strengths. Zabb is open much later than Sripraphai, till 2am, doesnt appear to have the hordes Sri has cultivated, and serves a different style of food. If youre ever craving Thai after midnight in Western Queens, well, Zabb is the obvious choice. And if you want to branch out from Sripraphai, get seated in less than 30 minutes and expand your repertoire, theyre also a good bet.  (5/21/05)

Zabb Thai * 7218 Roosevelt Ave., Jackson Heights, NY

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