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.