There have been significant exceptions, such as northern Thai specialist Lamoon in Queens, which recently closed after the cost of importing fire ant eggs and other hard-to-find ingredients. skyrocketed, and the pan-regional Ugly Baby, which is still gleefully setting fire to the faces of its customers in Brooklyn. Take a few steps back, however, and you can see a clear trend line toward the offal-stuffed larbs, papaya salads bristling with salty black crabs, and sticky rice boots that mark the cuisine of northeast China. Thailand.
That trajectory hit a new high with the April arrival of Zaab Zaab in Elmhurst, Queens.
Her take on larb ped udon, her hometown favorite ground duck salad, is powerful and nuanced at the same time. To the small pebbles of duck meat, he adds crunchy shards of fried duck skin and soft, dense slices of duck liver. Roasted chiles are used in abundance, but they don’t overshadow other seasonings, as they sometimes can. Instead, they’re held in a taut balance by the freshness of mint and charred galangal, the floral scent of lime leaves, and the pungent bitterness of sawtooth grass, also known as of culantro.
Cooks often talk about the balance between hot, sour, salty and sweet flavors in Thai cuisine; Mr. Khotsopa presents compelling arguments to add bitterness to the list. Like other larbs he makes with beef, pork or chicken, larb ped udon can and should be made into mouth-sized packets with greens from a basket of lettuce and herbs. With sprigs of mint, coriander and dill – Zaab Zaab makes excellent use of dill – is a sprig with long, thin, spear-shaped green leaves. It’s sadao, and a single leaf will add a melancholic note of bitterness that will make other herbs even more refreshing. Pei Wei, who owns the restaurant with Bryan Chunton, stopped by my table one evening to point out the sadao and a few other ingredients that she says take effort to source. Many customers come from Thailand, she said, and that helps show that Zaab Zaab is the real thing. After all, there is plenty of competition from other great Thai spots along Woodside Avenue and Broadway. The merger of a restaurant hallway serving one of the city’s largest Thai communities was almost certainly a prerequisite for the emergence of a cuisine as accomplished as Zaab Zaab’s. Mr. Khotsopa was working as a line cook at another restaurant owned by Ms. Wei and Mr. Chunton, Tiger Prawn in Brooklyn, when a chicken larb he cooked for a staff meal caught their eye. The partners built Zaab Zaab for him by quickly redeveloping a space where they had recently run a Hainanese chicken restaurant.
This explains the preponderance of chicken heads in the ceiling fresco. (It’s the work of a local Thai-born artist named Sarasin Chatwichitkoon, who has painted several other restaurants on this strip.) Mr. Khotsopa has been waiting for a trainer to call him miners for some time; he spent a decade as a wok cook at Jaiya Thai in Manhattan and another decade at a luxury hotel in Bangkok, with shorter stints elsewhere in Bangkok and at a Thai restaurant at State College, Pennsylvania. Before Zaab Zaab, however, he had never worked as a chef or cooked a predominantly Isan menu.
You know you’re in the hands of a skilled chef when you see how many techniques Mr. Khotsopa nails in his rather small kitchen. Out of the grill comes goong pow, two prawns as big as Italian sausages, their heads dripping with marigold-colored grease that I would happily spread on toast and eat for breakfast.
They’re served with a tangy, herbaceous nam jim, one of many glistening, faceted gems in Mr. Khotsopa’s sauce repertoire. Nuer yang, the grilled steak dish known as crying tiger, is made with ribeye and comes with two types of jaew dipping sauce, one tangy and slightly spicy, the other darker, with a bitterness similar to that of an espresso.