When Zabb was in its former digs below street level on gritty Roosevelt Avenue, straddling the Jackson Heights/Woodside border, it was already one of our favorite Thai restaurants. Despite the less than chic location, the owners managed to turn out admirable Isaan Thai food in attractively appointed surroundings. They have since sold that location to another Thai restaurant (which we haven’t tried) and moved on to two locations, one in Manhattan and the other on 30th Avenue, one of Astoria’s prime restaurant districts.
Zabb’s new location is not that much bigger than the former one, but they let their creativity run wild when it came to the décor. The front of the long, narrow space is adorned with rusticated stone walls and temple carvings. In the rear, by the bar, they have a wall of water-filled clear glass vases lit from behind by various colored lights. One row contains orchids, another exotic mushrooms, and the third tropical fish. It is an arresting display, and one that must require constant maintenance. I can’t help but wonder how the fish feel about it, though.
As noted on Zabb’s Website, “ ‘Zabb,’ a word in Northeastern dialect, is slang for ‘delicious’ with the sense of spicy and delicacy.” It goes on to say, “Northeastern (Isaan) cuisine is known around the country as being particularly fiery and hot,” although we didn’t necessarily find this to be the case. Except for one little mishap we had by accidentally biting directly into a particularly incendiary pepper floating innocently in our soup, we found the cuisine to be more piquant than painful.
Incidentally, should you have an unintended encounter with a firey morsel that exceeds your endurance, don’t drink water. The best readily available antidote in a Thai restaurant is a few mouthfuls of white rice. In other circumstances, milk or bread will work too. Beer is also preferable to water for washing it all down. Aaaah, relief.
It’s a temptation to make a meal out of the appetizers alone since there are so many interesting options. Esan (they seem to use the spelling of Isaan and Esan as randomly interchangeable here) is a must try, with its meaty, garlicky sausage paired with red onion, peanut, chili and fresh pepper. The crab roll, a little different from what you might expect — the crab being more of a mousse than distinguishable pieces of crab, and the wrapper being of tofu skin — is nonetheless toothsome.
Green papaya salad, or som tum, is one of the signature dishes of Isaan thai cuisine, and lives up to its reputation here. Crispy duck salad, dressed with onion, tomato, cilantro, chili paste and lime juice, makes a delicious starter for two or light main dish for one.
Soups are an essential part of the typical Thai meal. Although soup is offered in individual servings on the menu, if you order it for your table it comes served in a Thai hot pot, a serving piece that adds a touch of drama to the occasion. The fragrant broth is seasoned with the quintessential flavors of Thai cooking: lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chili and lime juice. The seafood in question consists of squid, shrimp and mussels. Just watch out for those innocent-looking little peppers floating around.
The surprise standout in the entrée department was an unassuming sounding noodle dish called gai kua noodle. Described only as sautéed flat noodle with chicken and egg, it really made us sit up and take notice of its powerful combination of textures and flavors. Perhaps it was the elusive “umami” we were tasting, the Japanese word for the fifth taste, but something special was going on.
We also downed a special of the day, soft-shelled crabs with garlic. As promised, they were crisply fried soft shells with plenty of garlic.
The disappointment of the meal was green curry, which we ordered with pork. Curry (“gang” in Thai) is a mainstay of the cuisine, but the curry here was unexciting at best.
The Bottom Line
The new Zabb Thai is a pretty place for some very authentic and delicious Thai food. They attract a clientele of Thai customers as well as the United Nations of Astorians. While you’re there, sample some of the sweet, spicy and refreshing Thai beverages like Thai iced coffee, Thai iced tea and coconut juice. On weekdays they have high-value lunch deals. Spice up your life with something exotic at Zabb Thai.
Suzanne Parker is the TimesLedger’s restaurant critic and author of “Eating Like Queens: A Guide to Ethnic Dining in America’s Melting Pot, Queens, N.Y.” She can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
34-11 30th Ave.
Astoria, NY 11103
Cuisine: Isaan (Esan) Thai
Setting: A small space done with creativity and imagination.
Service: Friendly and accommodating
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m. everyday
Alcohol: Wine and beer
Credit Cards: Yes
Noise Level: Acceptable
Handicap Accessible: Yes
A SAMPLE FROM THE MENU
Esan Thai sausage…$7
Tom Zabb seafood soup…$5 single $15/hot pot
Curry (all) with chicken/pork/beef …$9.
Gai Kua Noodle…$9
©2008 Community News Group
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