‘What is the one dish you would take to a desert island if you had to eat it for the rest of your life?”
Interviewers are always throwing this out at celebrity chefs.
Tonight, what I’d take, no question: this li’l red baby I’m eating now. Panang curry and rice. It is so danged tasty. Half the fun is just slurping the panang sauce. It’s like a red Thai curry but thicker, saltier, sweeter, nuttier, because of the peanut paste, and coconuttier, because of that coconut milk that’s about the only liquid in it.
6925 Linda Vista Road, Linda Vista
I know. Cliché. Everybody asks for panang, because it is sweet, not very spicy, so easy to love, and the word is easy to pronounce. It’s the go-to dish when the rest of the menu confuses you. Which is why I avoid it. I like to be confused. But tonight, I broke down. And when I got back into it, I practically broke down too, in tears. So-oo deelish.
I’m here at Sab-E-Lee (no, not related to Robert E. Lee), near the Linda Vista Library. I’m forever searching out things Isaan: Thailand’s North-East, mostly ethnic Laotians. Back in the day, the territory was Lan Xang, Land of a Million Elephants. Kinda like in Mexico’s north: conditions are drier, people have had to make a lot out of a little, and the foods can get super spicy. Which usually makes them super interesting.
But that name? “‘Sab-E-Lee’ is an Isaan expression,” says CJ, one of the servers, who’s from there. “It means ‘Delicious and Spicy.’”
So, two pleasures when I found this place, around six. First was, I had some spare change. Didn’t have to skimp. So I figured I’d get two mains and take leftovers back to the ranch for future reference. Stuff like this always tastes twice as good the second time round. The other pleasure? They had large (21.3oz) bottles of Thai beer. Chang, “Elephant.” Only $6. (The 11.2oz bottle, Chang or Singha, is only $3.50. Deal!). I got some crispy wontons ($6.95) to help it go down. And, okay, third was this panang. Almost like a guilty pleasure. CJ tells me it gets its taste mainly from red chili, coconut, sugar, nam pla — fish sauce — and galangal plant, for the ginger taste. But I’m suspecting they’ve also thrown in a bunch of lemongrass, kaffir lime, shallot, garlic for sure, and coriander, the root and the seeds, because it does have that rounded complexity. Lord. Now I’m sounding like a wine critic.
When it comes, it’s nicely red. Have a momentary twinge of regret: I asked for chicken. Shoulda gotten pork with the panang, but no biggie. I do get a pile of rice ($1.50), ’cause that soaks up the liquid and the flavor nicely.
It tastes just like they say, a mild, sweet and savory curry, with lots of peas and carrots swimming in the red stuff. And flavor? Beeyootiful.
Hmm. Casting around through the menu here. Want one more thing to play around with. Something savory! Almost go for the Thai sausage appetizer, another Isaan specialty. Basically, ground pork mixed with herbs and spices and then grilled ($6.95). Then I think larb, the Laotian national dish, char-broiled ground beef (or chicken or pork) mixed with spicy chili and lotsa lime sauce ($8.95). Or squid larb ($10.95), or duck larb ($12.95). Or how about salad? Say, “Som Tum Laos,” a mix of tangy shredded green papaya with other veggies and Thai eggplant (which is, like, golfball-sized, with reddish seeds inside). Salad’s called “Laos” because it has fermented fish sauce, meaning more umami-ness to everything.
I also always wanted to try the “waterfall”plate. That’s what CJ said nam tok means. Something about the dripping of blood as the beef or pork grills away (in spicy chili and lime sauce, $9.95).
But mostly, I’m thinking “naked” things. Naked, meaning raw. Naked shrimp with a spicy lime sauce ($10.95), or hey: spicy raw beef. “Thin sliced raw beef rib eye mixed with garlic, mint, chili and lime sauce.” CJ looks at me like, “Sure you want this?”
’Course now I’ve got to try it. Besides, could be good contrast to the panang sweetness. “How spicy?” says CJ. I’ve seen the warning on the menu. “Spicy dishes can be made on a scale of 1 to 10 upon request, but three is MEDIUM.”
Usually on this, I go for an eight at least. But something makes me say four.
And hoo-waa! Just as well I did. Because even four on these little raw chunks of beef is ha-ha-hot. It comes with a wedge of raw cabbage, along with cucumber wheels, which help. You definitely need cerveza. I order another bottle. And it goes down the gullet like a local fire brigade, sirens and all. You can taste mint and lime in the meat, but the nice white disks on top turn out to be raw slices of garlic. This is hard core. Between gold-fishing and panting, I do start to enjoy it. Still, that ball of white rice is what keeps it down to a small roar. I can see why my Thai friends like glugs of Mekhong whisky to match fire with fire.
Whatever, at least now I know these guys are serious about delivering the Real Thai Thing if you ask. Would I take this dish to my desert island? Clue: I’m already thinking about what I’ll have next time: pineapple fried rice.
- The Place: Sab-E-Lee Thai Restaurant, in Linda Vista Plaza, 6925 Linda Vista Road, 858-650-6868
- Hours: 11am-3:30pm, 5pm-9:30pm, Tuesday to Sunday; closed Monday
- Prices (cash only): crispy wontons, $6.95; Thai sausage appetizer (ground pork mixed with herbs, spices, grilled, $6.95; larb (char-broiled spicy ground beef (or chicken or pork), $8.95; squid larb, $10.95; duck larb, $12.95; Som Tum Laos salad, (shredded green papaya, veggies, fermented fish sauce, $7.95; nam tok (grilled beef or pork), $9.95; spicy raw beef, $9.95; spicy naked shrimp, lime sauce, $10.95; grilled pork neck, $8.95
- Buses: 44, 120
- Nearest Bus Stop: Linda Vista Road at Linda Vista Plaza