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The Original Sab-E-Lee

2405 Ulric Street, Linda Vista




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.

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Comments

justpeachey March 6, 2009 @ 2:50 p.m.

I just have to say first off, I am a big fan of Naomi. I read the reviews every week and have been to just about every restaurant around this city. That being said, I couldn't agree less about this restaurant. We arrived at 6:30 on Tuesday night and stood outside just over an hour. Don't get me wrong, I understand waiting for a place with 4 tables and great food but this just wasn't worth it. We had to ask the waiter at least 5 times for wine glasses and when he finally showed up with 2 brown plastic drinking glasses, mine had something green inside. I took it out with my finger and poured my wine. I wasn't about to wait any longer for a new glass. There were others there that night because of Naomi's review and there were some in far worse shape than we were. I won't bore you with any more details I just wanted to issue a fair warning to any other people out there who, like me, will go to any restaurant that Naomi praises. You might want to think twice about this one.

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619hotstuff March 4, 2009 @ 2:15 p.m.

Hi Namoi,

I happen to come across your article on At last, True Thai. I'm Laotian and have been here for over 20+ yrs. Even though Laos is not well known in the media but we're still proud of who we are. One of your sentence in the article "It's more like Laotian food, or so I hear, but who knows Laotian food." That right there, OFFENDED me. You shouldn't have phrase it like that. We might not have restaurants around the US and might not be as well known as Thai people. But that's ok, I'm pretty content with how things are now. You should have done a little more research on both of the two country before you wrote that sentence. FYI- we do have some little Mama and Papa restaurants here in San Diego. It might not be well known through out in the media or written about. But in the Lao community, it's well known. I hope that in the future before you write your next article, you've done a little more research on your topic.

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ButterflyWarrior May 9, 2009 @ 12:07 a.m.

I'm excited.. been to a dozen thai places... and while I have a few places I like with a few dishes I enjoy.. none have truly intrigued me .... this place sounds right!!! Your article makes me smell the spice already. I made Tom Kah Soup tonight and on my own and still longing for that taste I miss from Thailand itself or at least my dad who is from there but I don't live with him! :)

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junglejohn Feb. 26, 2009 @ 5:43 a.m.

I am San Diego native, living and working on the island of Borneo for many years now, still accessing Reader via Internet. I work in Thailand quite regularly, just want to complement you on your description of the essence of Thai cuisine - I thought very well done- you have really captured the feel. Well done for a tourist vs a regional native. I agree 100% with your descriptions and analysis. I go back to SD twice a year, will be sure and visit the restaurant. Thanks so much for the dua.

J

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msnform Feb. 26, 2009 @ 9:49 a.m.

is Saint Steve married? does he want to be?

great review, thanks for the tip!

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sd_rider Feb. 26, 2009 @ 2:58 p.m.

Can hardly wait to try Sab-E-Lee. We've been to DeDe's several times since reading your review of that wonderful place. Thanks so much!

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Fred Williams Feb. 27, 2009 @ 11:05 a.m.

Naomi, it's a shame you didn't cross the Mekong and spend some time in Laos. The larp there is far better than what you can find in Issan, as well as much cheaper. I love it when it's got mint leaves mixed in and hot as fire, washed down with the only beer worth drinking in SE Asia -- Beer Lao.

The Lao people are more friendly, though less skilled in English than the Thai, and still suffer greatly under their corrupt and feudalistic government. That's what drives so many of them to seek a better life in Thailand, and leads them to be cruelly tricked into prostitution or worse.

In the several months I was working in and around Vientiane I had two meals in Laos that were particularly memorable:

  1. Ant soup. A special type of small red ants that feed on mango are added into a regular soup, giving it a wonderfully tangy taste...and floating dead ants on top. Weird, but good.

  2. Fried field rat. You'd never want to eat a rodent that lives in water like the common rat, but field rats are just as healthy as rabbits (another type of field rodent). It was spitted on a stick and roasted over an open fire, then shared with the household -- everyone picking little bits off to go with the sticky rice. Quite surprisingly good.

Now before anyone replies in disgust, you should know that when I gave some cheddar cheese to my Lao co-workers they politely accepted, put a small piece in their mouths and immediately spit it out as the most awful thing they'd ever tasted.

When I told them how it's made, they turned white and vowed never to try that horrible and unhygienic stuff ever again.

Thanks for your article, Naomi...it brings back memories.

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kathryn619 March 3, 2009 @ 11:07 a.m.

Uh Oh! The neighborhood secret is OUT now. If you do eat here you MUST try the Shrimp Pad See Ew & the Yellow Curry-Naomi MISSED OUT!!

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kathryn619 March 13, 2009 @ 10:06 a.m.

justpeachey-GET A GRIP!! Bring in your own glass or go next door to the liquor store and buy one! They are SUPER busy now because of this review! If you are in a hurry...call in and order it to go!! It's a VERY tiny place!!

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Naomi Wise March 26, 2009 @ 10:01 p.m.

To 619hotstuff: I'm sorry to have offended you and certainly meant no offense -- but the Reader has very few readers who are familiar with Laotian food unless, like yourself, they are Laotian or, like Fred in these postings, has visited Laos. (That's what I meant by the expression, "who knows Laotian food?") It's an almost unknown cuisine here, since the country has very little tourism (compared to Thailand, where it's a national industry) and few local restaurants serving it, compared to the ubiquity of Thai and Vietnamese restaurants. I would LOVE to learn more about Lao food -- can you help me so that I can "research better?" Would you be so kind as to recommend your favorite Mom'n'Pop Lao restaurants in the area where I can go to taste authentic Laotian cuisine at its best? Thank you in advance.

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Naomi Wise March 26, 2009 @ 10:13 p.m.

To Fred Williams: Thanks for your fascinating post. I have indeed eaten a water rodent -- Trinidadian manicou, a critter resembling nutria, when my friends down in Sando (San Fernando, about 2 hours south of Port of Spain) threw a "wild meat barbecue." (Later, I ate it again at a post-Carnival fair in POS.) Manicou is typically served curried because it's gamy-greasy. My BBQ friends wanted to serve agouti as well, an arboreal rodent resembling a squirrel, said to be really tasty, but the agoutis were faster than the guys hunting them, this time.

Fred, we have to stop meeting like this. To use the most frightening words known to males, we need to talk. Please continue the conversation by emailing me at naomiwise@sdreader.com.

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Naomi Wise March 26, 2009 @ 10:24 p.m.

To justpeachey and everybody else who encountered huge crowds at the restaurant: In the high-gamble restaurant industry, most restaurants close within their first year unless they get positive media coverage. Naturally I wanted to keep this amazing little restaurant alive but the problem with reviewing a small restaurant is that everybody pours in there all at once, the week of the review, and a small restaurant just can't handle this sort of influx -- even the dishwashers (human or electric) have nervous breakdowns. I wish I could have given orders like Big Nurse: If your name starts with A - E, go this week. F through J, next week, etc. I did warn it was small and would be packed. Please give it another try in about two months -- that's typically how long it takes until the "media glow" wears off and the restaurant is just a little more crowded, routinely, with new fans added to the neighborhood eaters, than it was before the review came out. Sorry you had a bad time.

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Fred Williams March 27, 2009 @ 12:44 a.m.

Naomi,

I've sent you an email with inappropriate pictures of myself riding a pink tank down Wenceslas square.

I'm considering entering a new line of work...emergency dishwasher.

Teaming up with you, I'll go to the restaurants you favorably review just as the tsunami of customers hits. They'll pay any price to have my professional dish washing skills on site. We'll make a killing, Naomi!

I'm looking forward to your reply...but if you don't like my dish washing proposal, then be sure to have a good look at the email I forwarded you from my business associates in Nigeria.

Best,

fred

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Fred Williams March 27, 2009 @ 2:14 a.m.

Oops, the email bounced. Naomi, how can I send you inappropriate pictures when you give me a bad address...you tease!

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Naomi Wise March 27, 2009 @ 9:49 p.m.

Okay, Fred: Try my home email: naomiwise@aol.com. The rest of you -- like looking at the legendary Gorgon, you went blind when you saw this. Only way to get your eyesight back is to forget this post immediately. (Meaning, those Nigerians are already sending me 10 spams a day! Some of them even pretend to come from England and Australia. And let's not forget all the emails telling me how to extend my, uh, male member.)

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