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Talking About Thai On A New York Visit

When I was in New York a couple weeks ago, Robert Sietsema took me to Zabb Elee, a Thai restaurant in the East Village. The slip on the basement level offers Thai-hot dishes from the Isaan region of Thailand, near Laos. 

Decked in white, the restaurant's decor is apparently a Northern Thai translation of Bangkok cool for a New York clientele. It's a busy spot. We were concerned about whether we'd get a table at 6:30 on a Saturday, since the place doesn't take reservations.

Once fueled with a round of beers, we ordered with abandon: five dishes for three people, among them, a savory curry fish custard, and a plate of spicy morning glory greens. The catfish larb was a favorite --essentially a finely chopped fish salad-- tossed with shallots, mint, cilantro, scallions, chile, lime, and toasted rice powder. 

When our server asked how hot we'd like our larb, Robert settled on 4, with 1 being mild. "A four actually is fairly spicy here," he said. And it was. Chilis offered fair heat while pungent herbs paired with tart lime. Sweet from rice and onions complemented savory fish with some crispy bits. It was among the most compelling larb dishes I've had so far.

During dinner, I asked Robert why Thai has become a replacement for Chinese take-out, the Cantonese-American spinoffs chronicled by Jennifer 8.Lee in The New York Times and The Fortune Cookie Chronicles. It led to an extensive discussion, with price a leading factor.

"You can charge $5 more a plate at a Thai restaurant," he said, noting the rise of rents across the city and in the boroughs. Sietsema is an expert on cuisine from around the world. And he has written much about the disappearance of Chinese takeout joints. 

Even here in Florida where the cost of living is significantly less than New York, you'll see that Thai food is more expensive. Soup at Chen's Garden, my regular Chinese takeout place, runs between $1.50 to $5.15. Dishes are $6 to $9. 

At Sushi Thai Siam Kitchen on North Federal -- a clean, yet bare bones operation-- soup is priced between $5 and $7. Listings under Thai favorites run between $13 and $15. More than ten dishes on the menu break the $20 mark. In short: Sushi Thai Siam is housed in similar digs, serving food at nearly double the price. While ingredients differ, meats -- the expense on a plate--are the parallel between menus.

Chinese takeout reminds me of going to Chinatown with my father as a little kid, when we'd order a million dishes and stuff ourselves silly. He'd usually finish things off with the old orange-rind-as-fake-teeth trick to make me laugh. Chinese takeout reminds me of the final ridiculous scene in A Christmas Story. And it reminds me of DC late night drunken eats from New Big Wong after karaoke.

Despite its former ubiquity in urban areas, Chinese cuisine isn't as stylish as it was back then, especially since cheese-laden dishes or sauced meals are revered right now.  

"I love Thai because it's my favorite comfort food," said a co-worker when I had mentioned I was thinking about writing about the Florida's sushi-Thai. Thai offers the consistency of many of our most popular comfort foods right now, with the sugar for the most intense sweet tooth. Heat, of course, is adjustable.

In a search of area's restaurants, I found over 40 sushi-Thai spots, significantly more than the numbers of Chinese places in the landscape. Read on for my review .

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Food Critic
Contact: Melissa McCart

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