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.