Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Serious Flavor Punch: Zabb Elee

TL;DR: ★★★★☆

Insanely flavorful food at reasonable prices. Interesting and different, albeit confusing, menu (no Pad Thai or green curry here!), great ambiance and decor, but with slightly neglectful and slow service.

Food: ★★★★★
Ambiance: ★★★★★
Staff: ★★★☆☆

Price: $-$$
Number of visits: 2

2nd Ave. & 5th St.

Among the plethora of Thai restaurants that offer similar dishes which essentially all taste the same, Zabb Elee definitely stands out not only with its unusual name but also with the not-so-familiar Thai food: Isan cuisine.

Now, don't get me wrong: I love the ubiquitous Thai dishes (my love for drunken noodles and green curry is unconditional), and I'm positive that I'll still be stepping into Thai Terminal or Room Service (my two favorites) to satisfy my Pad Thai cravings. Zabb Elee is just another awesome place to keep in mind, especially when seeking some Asian comfort food.

Walking in, you can't help not noticing the somewhat elegant interior. I definitely appreciated the aesthetically pleasing decor, especially when I came here after sunset. The dimly lit room was filled with pretty lamps and candles on the tables, making this a good date spot. Although, I'm not sure if I'm a big fan of the tables and chairs — they seemed a little out of place, in my opinion, next to the white bench seating along the walls and the pure look and vibe the restaurant gave off.


But obviously, the mismatching interior isn't a big deal when the food is delicious, and the prices are affordable. I was quite pleased with my dish the first time I was here, but when I revisited this place just this past weekend, I was even more satisfied.

The first dish I tried was Kao Moo Korb, or crispy pork over rice. Unlike its name, the dish was quite simple. It came with crispy fried pieces of pork belly (much like the Korean samgyupsal), drizzled with a sweet and sour sauce, a few pieces of sweetened and dried sausage, a hard-boiled egg and rice. There was also a side of soy sauce-like, tangy sauce, which I assumed was supposed to be added into the rice and pork mixture — this was a great addition to the mix as it prevented the entire dish from being overly sweet and sugary. The dish also had a couple slices of cucumber, which kind of acted as a refreshing palate cleanser between bites.

The entree overall was good but not outstandingly awesome. The pork belly was crispy and had a great bite to it, but it was a little too crispy and dry for my liking. I really enjoyed the sausage, though, as it was definitely not like what I'd had before. It was quite sweet and chewy, which doesn't sound very appealing in a sausage, but I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious it was. In hindsight, I guess it was like an upgraded and less-tough beef jerky.

All the ingredients together worked pretty well, minus the fact that the sauce on the side was kind of bland, which left me thinking that the dish could've used a bit more flavor. Nonetheless, I would recommend this to someone who is 1) not familiar with Thai or Asian food or 2) not of fan of the intense herbs and spices such as cilantro, ginger, etc. Kao Moo Korb, I think, would be a good gateway dish to southeast Asian food.

Kao Moo Korb

Now, for the dish that blew my mind. Please play the following video for triumphant music effect:

The Yen Ta Fo, aka "sour & spicy noodle soup, fish ball, squid, fried tofu," was seriously amazing. This super comforting bowl of noodles was packed with not only spices and herbs but also big pieces of squid, fish balls and fried bits of tofu. The soup was divine — I loved how it was mildly spicy and insanely flavorful — and the wide rice noodles had a great consistency of soft but not overly mushy.

The rest of the ingredients, I could tell, was definitely high in quality. The squid was amazingly succulent and al dente, the fish balls were chewy with the right amount of sweetness, and the fried tofu was cooked to perfection. With the tofu, I especially loved the very thin slices that were stuck to the side of the bowl (there were also thicker triangular chunks of fried tofu completely submerged in the soup) because the dry part that was hanging out of the soup had a nice crunch to it, while the wet part was very soft and delicate.

I highly, highly recommend Yen Ta Fo to those who enjoy the spicy and tangy kick. I can see this dish not being everybody's cup of tea, but if you appreciate the bold and intense flavors and spices, you will not be disappointed.

Yen Ta Fo (with horrible lighting)

Other than the Kao Moo Korb and Yen Ta Fo, I would also suggest one of the papaya salads I tried, the Som Tum Muazuar. My goodness, was this salad refreshing! A beautiful medley of thin slices of papaya, room-temperature vermicelli noodles, shrimp and crispy pork skin, this dish was delightful. This is another dish I would recommend as a gateway entree — the sweetness from the dressing and papaya would be less overwhelming for those who aren't particularly fond of the intense spices.

Another thing to note about this place is that the menu is incredibly confusing due to the unfamiliar and hard-to-pronounce item names. As you already saw with the dishes I mentioned here, you definitely cannot guess what's in each dish just by looking at the name, and the descriptions below are not always clear. I imagine that it's not uncommon for customers to order by merely pointing to the item on the menu if not by attempting (and probably completely failing) to slowly and carefully enunciate each syllable. Of course, I understand (and appreciate) that the restaurant kept the original names of the dishes for the sake of authenticity — I guess I'll just have to learn Thai!

Lastly, the service at this restaurant could improve, in my opinion. I guess we did go at a typically busy hour — 7 p.m.-ish on a Saturday — but the waiters and waitresses (we had, like, four different servers coming and going) were quite neglectful, slow and not very friendly. We didn't have to wait, though, which was definitely a plus!

Based on my experiences, I would highly recommend Zabb Elee not only to those who enjoy Thai food but also to those who are looking for something out of the ordinary. While it does get mixed reviews, Zabb Elee gets two thumbs up in my book.


  1. I can give you a few recommendations that will keep you coming back to this place for a long time despite a rightful love for Thai Terminal (my go to take out Thai place, so good, love the pad see ew, pad thai and drunken noodles, as well as chive pancakes. If you havent had the chive pancakes, get them).

    Next time at Zabb Elee get:
    Kana Moo Krob - pork belly with chinese broccoli, chili, soy sauce, garlic all fried in wok AMAZING
    Moo tod kratiem - best bar snack ever, little pieces of fried pork with garlic
    Duck larb - ground duck salad with crispy duck rinds, onion, chile, mint, thai basil, lime vinaigrette. most traditional issan thai dish.
    Frog legs in basil sauce on specials menu
    There's also a stir fry usually on the menu, with some random meat or organ, i ask them to give me shrimp instead and its legit
    Lastly, Kai Tod, marinated half fried chicken, also tasty

    Have you heard about/been too new Issan place on Ave A Somtum der?

    BTW put your link on my NYCFoodGuy.com blogroll, if you start one, would greatly appreciate the follow back.

    Keep up the good work.


    1. Hey Lawrence,

      Thanks so much for your comment and the recommendations! I'll have to keep these in mind when I go back to Zabb Elee (and I definitely will be going back), especially the duck larb. I've heard so many good things about it!

      I read an Eater article about Somtum Der, and it got a pretty decent review. I looked at the menu online, and everything seems pretty affordable too, so I'll have to check it out soon. Let me know if you do/have — would love to hear your thoughts on it.

      And thanks so much for the add!! I'm currently working on setting up a blogroll, and you're already on the list :) It should be up soon.


      P.S. The chive pancakes at Thai Terminal? Oh. My. God.