The first thing you notice when you walk into Zaab Zaab, a new Isaan Thai restaurant in Elmhurst, is the ceiling. It’s a visual riot of jagged lines and big chickens.
Also making an immediate impression: the bright, striped bar, the aggressively mismatched banquette cushions, the raised, fenced-in front lawn, the colorful, curbside dining area — everything about the place, really, is designed to be seen.
Which, according to co-owners Bryan Chunton and Pei Wei, who sat down with Gothamist Thursday afternoon at Zaab Zaab for a delicious, fiery feast, is the Isaan way.
“The culture of Isaan is very festive,” Wei said. “The people of Isaan like to dance. They like to drink. They like to wear colorful clothes. So when we hired an artist from the local Thai Council, we told him that we wanted to do like the Isaan style – so that the people feel welcome when they walk in.”
It’s all great and gives the place an instant spice. If you’ve taken a few long subway rides to get here, you’ll immediately feel like it was worth it. But the real reason you’re at Zaab Zaab is the little fanfare of chef Aniwat Khotsopa’s long and appealing menu. He offers a handful of Isaan specialties from his hometown of U-don Thani.
Even in an area packed with top-notch Thai restaurants (people don’t call this area of Elmhurst “Thai Town” for nothing), you’ll rarely find things like Khotsopa’s Larb Ped U-Don, a spectacular pile of Chopped duck breast, charred galangal, chunks of pan-fried duck liver, and crispy duck skin chunks. As Chunton said earlier, through a spokesperson, “every household in U-Don does it. It’s like a competition. If you don’t eat duck larb, you don’t ‘re not from U-don Thani.”
We also happily devoured several other Isaan delicacies from Khotsopa, including the fantastic bamboo shoot and pork belly Hor Mok, which arrived hidden inside a pair of folded banana leaves. The hearty Tom Zaab Khreung Nai is a sour and spicy soup loaded with tender beef intestine, tripe and spongy spleen.
For a real hit in Isaan, order the Mieng Pla Pow, a spectacular whole tilapia crusted with salt marinated in cumin and garlic, stuffed with pandan leaves and lemongrass and roasted over charcoal. This dish comes with two sauces – one sweet (tamarind peanut), one spicy (nam jim) – a tangle of slippery rice noodles and a mountain of greens, which feature a few rarities in their own right: sadao and phe kaa. Both are wonderfully bitter and complement just about anything on the table.
Koy Neur also sounds good, an Isaan dish made with marinated raw beef with roasted rice, as does porky Larb Moo, Tom Zaab filled with ribs, and Som Tum Pla Ra with black crab and fish sauce. home fermented. And Khotsopa is such a skilled cook that I bet even the most conventional dishes, like roast chicken, shrimp pad Thai and Zaab Zaab fries, are loaded with flavor.
It’s also a bit of a fluke that Zaab Zaab even exists. Chunton and Wei also own the Hainanese Chicken Counter Eat gay at Essex Market and Tiger prawn in Williamsburg. They opened this place in Elmhurst last August as a full service version of Eat Gai. Three months later, the chef retired due to illness, then all the staff caught the omicron variant, and so Chunton and Wei shut it down for two months.
In the meantime, Khotsopa has been hired by Tiger Prawn as a sauté cook. Khotsopa had been cooking professionally for more than a decade in Bangkok, Philadelphia and New York – but never Isaan food. One night at Tiger Prawn, he cooked a family meal with dishes from his hometown of U-Don, and Chunton and Wei were blown away. Eat Gai Part 2 was dropped and Zaab Zaab was born.
By the way, Zaab basically means delicious, and so Zaab Zaab simply means extremely delicious. And I must say: no lies detected.
Zaab Zaab is located at 76-04 Woodside Avenue, just east of 76th Street, and is currently open Wednesday through Monday from 12:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. And if you really want to party, arrive late, when all the Thai restaurant workers show up after their shift (347-613-7414; @zaabzaabnyc)