After 3 weeks in the Land of Burgers and Shakes, I was craving something hot and spicy, so I decided to give Zabb Elee a try. I had been walking by Zabb Elee a number of times, but I had never felt inclined to step inside until that particular day. It was the promise of “Authentic Isan Thai Cuisine” that won me over. If you’re familiar with Thai food, you also know that Isan (the big northern region) is synonymous with spiciness, usually embedded in delicious salads and dipping sauces.
The first thing I noticed inside the restaurant was the sign with the Michelin star. Now while it’s completely normal that restaurants awarded with Michelin stars but them up for people to see, I just didn’t expect to find one at Zabb Elee based on the outside appearance. Well inside, Zabb Elee looked nicer. The color palette was strictly white/green/dark wood and there was a beautiful tiled floor.
The menu was a kind of binder with laminated pages with pictures, most restaurants in Thailand. Most dishes were around $9-15, which was much cheaper than what I would have expected after spotting that Michelin star.
Backstreet Boys were playing in the background and to the sound of “Quit playing games (with my heart)” a nice young man took my order. I went for larb with chicken and grilled pork. There were two kinds of grilled pork, and I had actually decided on the regular, sliced one, but the waiter hesitated to write down the order and gave me an “are-you-sure?”- look. “Do you like fatty meat?” he asked, and nodded as if he already knew the answer. He was right, so I agreed to change my order to the grilled pork neck instead. I’m a sucker for the Asian-style fatty pork cuts, where some of the pieces might just be grilled fat with no meat. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and not very healthy, but there’s so much yum in that stuff.
At Zabb Elee, the pork was grilled to perfection without burning the meat, and the savory dipping sauce on the side was so tasty I could have eaten it like soup.
When placing my order, I was asked how spicy I wanted the larb to be. I can eat spicy, but only Thai spicy (as in really, really spicy) after a couple of days’ accommodation, so I asked for a medium spicy version, which was what I got. The larb was really good with just the right balance between the fierce flavors. Larb can easily be both too sweet and too salty, but at Zabb Elee, it was perfect.
There are plenty of Thai restaurants in New York but they are either run by non-Thais (and lack authenticity), or they are run by Thais too eager to please American palates and therefor lacking flavor and true Thai spiciness.
Zabb Elee is not a fancy restaurant, and there are no advanced fusion dishes or Zen-like décor with Buddha statues and incense sticks. Instead the Thai food is the best and most authentic I’ve ever had in New York (and I’ve had a lot). In fact the food at Zabb Elee is better than a lot of the restaurants I’ve visited in Thailand too, and there’s no doubt that they deserve that Michelin star.
Update 2017: Zabb Elee lost their Michelin star in the 2016 Michelin Guide. The restaurant also changed its name in 2016 and is now called Zabb Ver. Unfortunately, they have also changed the chef, and when I ate there in July 2017, it was a completely different experience. Even though I was assured that the chef was Thai, the food didn’t taste authentic Thai anymore.