At Zabb Elee, don't ask for pad thai. That Thai chestnut, toned down and sugared up at too many stateside restaurants, isn't even on the menu. The real reason to check out Zabb Elee is spicy/sour Isaan food from the country's northeast, which this place does as well as any in New York. Grilled pork with chiles, onion, and mint is excellent, possibly the best version comiendosiempre's had outside Thailand, and som tum muazuar (papaya salad with shrimp and barbecued pork) is also right on target. Duck larb, served with very good sticky rice, is fresh and complex-tasting, polimorfos reports, "with a very light hand on the sugar, unlike all the other Thai restaurants in NYC."
And unlike other Thai restaurants, this one will take you at your word if you ask for spicy food. Even a heat-seeker like comiendosiempre had to dial it down a notch on round two after some incendiary first courses. At Zabb Elee, which replaced the Vietnamese misfire Le Da Nang barely three weeks ago, the authenticity extends to the regionally focused menu. Like its sister restaurant in Queens, it sticks pretty much to Isaan specialties. Not only is pad thai absent; so are most other noodle dishes, as well as the coconut milk curries native to southern and central Thailand.
Portions are large, prices are fair, service is friendly and attentive. For Chowhounds, that adds up to one of the city's top Thai restaurants, in the same tier as Queens all-stars SriPraPhai, Chao Thai, and Ayada. Even hard-to-please Thai hound Simon is an instant fan; he credits Zabb with serving "the only authentic and delicious Lao/Isaan food in Manhattan." "This place is not dumbing down their food for farangs," comiendosiempre adds, "and hopefully that will remain the case. Whether they can avoid adding pad thai we will have to see."
Zabb Elee [East Village]
75 Second Avenue (between E. Fourth and Fifth streets), Manhattan