Before I write specifically about Sab-E-Lee, you need to know a little about the Thai region called Isaan, Isan, Issan, or Esarn — in English it’s spelled every which way — and get an idea of its food, which is nothing like the Thai food you find at Celadon or Rama or Lotus or (least of all) Taste of Thai. It’s more like Laotian food, or so I hear, but who knows Laotian food? If you do, skip the next three paragraphs. Otherwise, let’s start by introducing my friend Tui (pronounced “Doy”), a delicately beautiful woman of about 40 when we met some three years ago, with a careworn, intelligent face. She owns an indoor-outdoor bar on the beach sands of the tiny, tsunami-ravaged town of Nan Yang, just south of the Phuket airport, a place festooned year-round with multicolor Christmas lights. No rich Americans or sex-tourist pigs despoil Nan Yang or its clean, basic, $12-a-night bungalows; this austere Eden draws jolly snorkeling, Jenga-playing, hard-drinking Brits and a few aging Frenchwomen who sunbathe topless.
Tui is from Isaan, the hot, dry, (barely) subsistence-farming region of Thailand’s northeast, across the Mekong from Laos. Other Thais admire Isaan for its exports: strong, spicy peasant cuisine and beautiful women. Many street-food vendors in Bangkok are Isaanese, grilling savory, juicy sausages and marinated meats or chicken on wood-fired braziers. (Your mouth starts to water from the aromas well before the vendors come into view.) Odd that this hungriest of regions is famed for its food. And combine poverty with female beauty and little surprise that a disproportionate number of Bangkok’s prostitutes are Isaanese, too, sold by desperately poor parents to pimps or brothels the moment they start sprouting buds.
Tui came from a relatively prosperous family, and when her husband of ten years dumped her when she was 30 for a younger woman, her father financed this beachside bar so that she could escape and make an honest living far from her past. Alone after the Brits had gone beddy-bye, we talked — Tui, and my sweetie TJ, and I — deep into the night over shots of cheap, smooth Mekong whiskey. We had a lot to say, a lot in common. You know your own kind, even 6000 light-years from home.
Next day, a few hours before TJ and I were due to catch our plane back to Bangkok, Tui made us a simple Isaanese lunch: som tum (green papaya salad) and stir-fried beef larb. Unforgettable. Much spicier than the same foods cooked in the Bangkok or Lanna styles, and less sweet, but brilliant with exigent flavors of citrus and heat. We hoped to resume what would be a long friendship a few years later — TJ and I planned to retire eventually to Chiang Mai (also full of jolly Jenga-playing retired Brits, and plane fare to Phuket is cheap). But now Thailand is destabilized, TJ’s dead, I’m all out of spare travel money, and my 401(k) is blown. I’ll probably never see Tui again, aside from the photo I have on my fridge, in a beautiful carved-teak frame purchased for a few bahts from a Bangkok street vendor.
But thanks to San Diego’s great Asian-food blogger, mmm-yoso, I’ve found Sab-E-Lee in Linda Vista, serving the real food of Isaan, and even letting farangs like me eat it Isaan-spicy. This is going to ruin all other local Thai restaurants for me. At last, the food I’ve been longing for since that first bite of Tui’s som tum! Now, take a good close look at the “Need to Know” section of the boilerplate: this place is small, plain, no rezzies, no name on the door, no credit cards, and no alcohol except BYO. (Nobody’s hiding their beer and wine, but if you bring in Mekong whiskey, you should probably keep it in a discreet paper bag — ’cause if I’m there and I see it, I might demand a drink.) But four of us ate more than our fill, and I doggie-bagged home half the meal (six nights’ worth for one), and it cost about $15 apiece, including tip. Now look at the rating. Four stars. No kidding. I live for this.
Knowing that Isaan food is and should be hot as hell, I chose my posse with care: Sam grew up on Korean food, Jennifer has spent time in Thailand, and Steve (“I’ll eat anything once”) is both a culinary and literal skydiver. (This paragon of gentlemanliness also arrived with a backpack full of Thai beers, a chilled dry screw-top Riesling for me, and a pint of milk — along with several clean cotton bandannas. And I don’t think he learned this “be prepared” routine in the Boy Scouts.)
I thought I was onto a scoop, but the restaurant had reprints of a City Beat rave from last summer (a month after opening) hanging on the wall. Curses, foiled again — darn that Candace Woo! (I gather she’s a friend of mmm-yoso.) The owner/waiter, Koby, is a skinny, cheerful, high-energy guy who makes you feel welcome. When he asked us to choose a spiciness rating from 1–10, we seriously discussed the question of relativity: “At all the local Thai restaurants, I ask for an 8,” I said, “knowing they won’t do a real Thai 8 for a farang — and they give me a 2. I have a friend from Isaan, whose som tum is hotter than anything I’ve eaten in any Thai restaurant here. That’s what I want.” Koby made the right decision: about 6H on the papaya salad and half the other dishes, backing down to 5H on the remainder to give our mouths a slight rest.
The som tum was first out of the kitchen — green papaya salad with tomatoes, dried shrimps, lime juice, and (wowie) chilies. It was uncompromised: as spicy as Tui’s and nearly identical in flavor, made without the palm (or white) sugar that other Thai restaurants often add. I never liked dried shrimps until I traveled in Thailand, where I fell in love with their funky, chewy saltiness. There are lots in here. Close your eyes, envision the Mekong.
Next was beef-liver salad, which I ordered as a challenge because I always loathed Mom’s unspeakable liver and onions. The liver here was in slim slices, rare and tender, coated with toasted rice powder, onions, chilies, and spicy lime juice, with carrots, lettuce, and all manner of veggies. It was almost like foie gras from a cow (or maybe a calf), but with spicy Asian seasonings. Score one for Isaan versus Mom. I loved it, passionately — a shocking new form of comfort food.
For a starchy soother, we ordered Isaan’s steamed, sticky “sweet rice,” the classic starch of northern Thailand that allows you to eat sensually with your fingers. (If you’ve ever spent time in India or Sri Lanka and gotten used to using your fingers, you regret having to go back to cold, hard steel.) You pick up blobs of sticky rice, roll them around morsels of the other food, and pop them into your mouth. The starchy rice is also better at cooling the fires than the slim and elegant long-grain jasmine rice that’s also available, which is lovable but better suited to the milder, coconutty palate of Bangkok and the Malay-ethnic south. (Another finger-picking possibility with the salads: you can eat some of them Vietnamese-style, wrapping everything up in loose lettuce or cabbage leaves.)
Spicy raw beef was another killer, and I don’t mean that the meat was a threat. (This is a dish mmm-yoso raves about under its Thai name, koi soi.) Several of my Bay Area favorite Thais served this, but it’s hard to find in San Diego, where food paranoia forever strikes deep. Sab-E-Lee does the right thing: they don’t use pre-ground beef (which is indeed dangerous) but hand chop excellent steak in-house. This way, you’re eating the interior of the muscle, which has never been exposed to the nasties. The tender beef (it tastes and feels like sirloin) is coated with toasted rice powder, lemongrass, lime juice, and dried Thai crushed chilies and chopped green herbs (maybe Thai basil). The menu says there’s tripe in there, too, but I didn’t spot any, or want it.
By now, we were all steaming, and Saint Steve broke out his secret supply of cotton bandannas to daub our foreheads. The next course seemed milder — or we’d moved to chili heaven, our mouths so adapted to full-out spice that it seemed normal. Tom yum soup with shrimp, a five-star dish if there ever was one, had red specks over the surface but tasted almost mild as well as rich and sweet from the caramelized sugars of plentiful onion shreds and an army of tenderly cooked garlic cloves. The broth was the thickest, most substantial I’ve ever encountered in this dish, and the lemongrass and kaffir lime laid way back, lending support instead of grabbing center stage. It resembled the best French onion soup you ever tasted, with brighter seasonings instead of melted cheese. The bowl was full of big, juicy Asian mushrooms and tender, moist large shrimp. It was the ultimate tom yum goong. (Beginners’ alert: don’t chew on the tough green kaffir lime leaves or the woody lemongrass pieces lurking near the bottom, which look like scallions but aren’t.)
Catfish is the main edible fish on Southeast Asian rivers and canals. As larb, it has many of the same elements as other meat salads here but tastes new again with fish: it’s chopped, grilled, faintly smoky, and, mixed with the strong seasonings, not the least muddy or “catfishy.” Whole roasted peanuts provided crunch and relief from the spice, and there was another unidentified species in there that looked like thick yellow onion slices but with a pleasantly chewy, rubbery texture, like sea cucumber. Maybe better not to know what it was, but I liked it.
We also ordered Isaan sausages (which come in a red curry or fried rice), but the kitchen was all out of sausages that night, including another variety from the Lanna region in the northwest. (They’re all imported, not house-made.) I’m recommending both without even trying them, after eating them repeatedly from street-braziers in Bangkok and inside the farang-free Chiang Mai Day Market.
Sam was surprised that I didn’t order any of the four curries offered on the menu. But curries are available at any Thai place in town and tend to be southern or “Royal Thai” — palace recipes taught to professional chefs at the palace cooking school and now endemic all over Siam and America. A great idea, and I think the king and queen are super cool, but it does tend to standardize the cooking, erasing interesting regional differences in favor of haute-cuisine, tourist-ready renditions. However, bloggers single out Sab-E-Lee’s Panang curry for praise. It would certainly provide a soothing coconut-milk coating for a burning mouth. I’ll try it next time, when I’m less greedy for pure Isaanese flavors.
Last dish: time for a noodle concoction. I was thinking of pad see ewe, or even pad Thai, to ramp down the spices and end with something easy (these are also blogger faves) but noticed another genre of food we hadn’t tried, a group of “spicy mint leaf” dishes. I chose Spicy Mint Leaves Noodles with seafood. (Next time, I’ll go for #35 on the menu, Spicy Mint Leaves with Steamed Pork Leg — another food-blog rave.) The noodles were wide, both soft and toothsome, with herbs and bean sprouts. The mixed seafood included tender tilapia and squid, elaborately carved to resemble the ornate towers of a Buddhist wat; shrimp; and slightly overcooked green-lip New Zealand mussels. The dish seemed sweet and soothing at first, maybe a three on the heat scale until it whipped out a concealed lash of chilies that turned the aftertaste fiery.
“I can’t wait to get home and take notes on this dinner,” I said, sounding totally insane, since note-taking is work. But we were all enjoying the same strange surge of mental energy and clarity. I know that chilies pack a powerload of nutrients, but do they also sharpen the mind and stimulate the chi (life force)? Maybe so. As we left, I bid Koby good-bye with a little wai and the hello/good-bye greeting, “Sawadi kaa,” drawing out the female ending, “kaa,” to three protracted, musical syllables — the long, fiery exhalation of a well-fed dragon lady.
If you’ve fallen under Thailand’s spell through travel or food, British author John Burdett, who’s spent a lot of time there not playing Jenga, writes insightful tragicomic policiers centering on a seriously Buddhist Thai cop. His latest, available in paperback, is Bangkok Haunts, which delves into the mystery of an enchanting Isaanese prostitute killed in a snuff film. (Did she jump or was she pushed?) The tale explores Isaan’s child-sex trade and the moral power and complexity of Thai Theravada Buddhism. You may learn things you’d rather not know, but you won’t be a blindly innocent farang ever again.
On a lighter note, to learn about the Laotian culture across the Mekong and a bit about the food (most Isaanese are ethnically Lao), Colin Cotterill’s series of paperback mysteries center on a charming old left-wing Laotian coroner in Vientiane in the ’70s. Not as sexy as Janet Ivanovich in New Jersey, but just as diverting and perhaps more enlightening. Start with the first book, The Coroner’s Lunch, to get yourself properly oriented.
2405 Ulric Street at Linda Vista Road, 858-650-6868, sab-e-lee.webs.com.
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday 10:30 a.m.–9:30 p.m.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Authentic spicy specialties (mainly entrée salads, soups, noodles) of the Isaan region of northeast Thailand. Thai iced tea and coffee, juices (including longan), and sodas; no alcohol, but okay to BYO.
PICK HITS: Tom yum soup, all house specialties, including papaya salad, liver salad, spicy raw beef, catfish larb, Thai sausage, sweet (sticky) rice. Other popular dishes include pad Thai, pad see ewe, Spicy Mint Leaves with Steamed Pork Leg.
NEED TO KNOW: Look for blue awning that reads “Linda Foods,” as the restaurant’s name is not posted anywhere. CASH ONLY. Very small (20 chairs) and no reservations, so go early on a weeknight to avoid weekend prime-time waits. Takeout available. On 1–10 spiciness scale, 5 is serious, 6 or 7 is regionally authentic and appropriate for veteran fire-eaters, higher is for natives, demons, dragons, masochists. (Thai iced tea, made with sweetened condensed milk, will help quench hot lips at dinner and belly-flames later.) Four vegan entrées, others adaptable with a request to sub tofu for meat.
NOTE: Some Westerners suffer allergic reactions (breathing difficulties, mouth numbness) to the fleshy red fresh chili (Fresno chilies, a jalapeño variant) used by many Thai restaurants, including this one. If allergic, ask for dishes to be made without fresh red chilies. Dried Thai chilies are not known allergens.