The first thing you notice when you step inside 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 elevated, fenced-in turf lawn out front, the colorful curbside dining room — 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 delightful, fiery feast, is the Isaan way.
"Isaan culture is very festive," said Wei. "The Isaan people 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 we want to make it like Isaan style — to make people feel welcome when they come in."
All of that is great and gives the place instant pizazz. If you took a couple of long subway rides to get here, it immediately feels like it was worth the trip. But the real reason you're at Zaab Zaab lies with the little fanfare in chef Aniwat Khotsopa's lengthy and appealing menu. It features a handful of Isaan specialties from his native city of U-don Thani.
Even in a neighborhood crowded with first-rate Thai restaurants (people don't call this patch of Elmhurst “Thai Town” for nothing), you'll seldom find things like Khotsopa's Larb Ped U-Don, a spectacular pile of ground duck breast, charred galangal, chunks of fried duck liver and crackling bits of duck skin. As Chunton said earlier, through a spokesperson, "every household in U-Don makes it. It’s like a competition. If you’re not eating duck larb, you’re not from U-don Thani.”
We gleefully devoured several more of Khotsopa's Isaan specialties as well, 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 Isaan showstopper, order the Mieng Pla Pow, a spectacular, salt-crusted whole tilapia 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 star a couple of rarities in their own right: sadao and phe kaa. Both are wonderfully bitter and nicely complement just about everything on the table.
The Koy Neur sounds great as well, an Isaan dish made from raw marinated beef with roasted rice, as does the porky Larb Moo, the Tom Zaab filled with baby back ribs and the Som Tum Pla Ra with black crab and housemade fermented fish sauce. And Khotsopa is such an adept cook, I bet even the more conventional dishes, like rotisserie chicken, prawn pad thai, and Zaab Zaab fries, are filled with flavor.
It is also a bit of a fluke that Zaab Zaab even exists. Chunton and Wei also own the Hainanese chicken counter Eat Gai in 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 the whole staff caught the omicron variant, and so Chunton and Wei shut it down for two months.
In the meantime, Khotsopa was hired at Tiger Prawn as a saute cook. Khotsopa had been cooking professionally for more than a decade in Bangkok, Philadelphia and New York City — but never Isaan food. One night at Tiger Prawn, he made a family meal with dishes from his home city of U-Don, and Chunton and Wei were blown away. Eat Gai Part 2 was scrapped, and Zaab Zaab was born.
By the way, Zaab means, basically, delicious, and so Zaab Zaab just 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 noon to 1:00 a.m. And if you really want to party, get here late, when all the Thai restaurant workers show up after their shifts (347-613-7414; @zaabzaabnyc)