Just steps from the interminable reconstruction of the BQE’s Roosevelt Avenue exit, and under the round-the-clock clatter of subway tracks, is Zabb Queens, an Isaan Thai restaurant. Isaan cuisine is soul food from the northeastern region of Thailand, and while the clichéd “hot-sour-salty-sweet” plate-view applies, it would be something bordering criminal to talk about Zabb Queens as such.
A few things right off the bat: first, when you go, find out if there are any specials, and order them. Second, seek the heat. Some dishes, including the “Chowhound told me to stay away from you” curries, are unforgivably hot, but in a really good way. If we haven’t lost you already, the spiciness at Zabb Queens is a revelation not only because heat and spice vary from dish to dish, but each has a satisfying complexity of its own. Third, for all you organ meat lovers out there, Zabb Queens has a lot of offal. For six dollars, you can order a chicken heart, gizzard, and liver on separate bamboo sticks, sauce on the side. That said, your non-gizzard loving grandma will love the Pad Thai at Zabb Queens. While the popular workhorses of Thai food are represented on Zabb’s menu, there are enough items to warrant multiple visits. It’s a deceptively vast menu. The best (and last) thing you should know is that Zabb is open until 2 am every day.
As several excellent reviews have noted, there are no less than 36 salads on the menu, ranging from a fresh bean sprout and warm fried tofu, with a shallow side dish of crunchy-hot peanut sauce ($4), to more adventurous offerings like Yum How Dong ($8), made from sliced cow’s intestine laced with hot chili. The seafood salads are beautiful, particularly the Goong Chae Num Pla ($8), a mix of leafy greens with a scattering of raw sweet shrimp, garlic, lime, and chili. Som Tum ($7.50), a spicy plate of shredded green papaya with salted crab, is also fresh and bright, but more legendary in some circles is Zabb’s Catfish Labb ($10), an odd-looking and vastly flavorful mound of ground catfish with an array of spices and flavor. It is unbelievably good, and hard to describe. In terms of garnish, there’s no bells or whistles -- fluted radishes or whatever -- it’s just an amazing salad made from ground catfish in front of you.
Isaan Thai sausage is made with a technique that involves preserving pork with fermented rice, and Zabb Queens features the sausage both in salads and sliced in an appetizer form. Pad Thai ($7), in case you wanted to know, comes well balanced with fluffy bits of fried egg, smoked tofu, and just a trace of nam pla. For vegetarians, the mixed vegetable entrée ($7) is actually a thoughtful mix of Chinese broccoli, baby corn, and other vegetables. Another good entrée is the Pend Yang Pad Ped ($8.50), a plate of roast duck with crispy skin, red pepper, and slivers of almost raw onion in a curry sauce. The duck is small pieces of chewy dark meat, with the smoky tang of confitted legs.
Ice creams and other desserts at Zabb Queens have the just-spun texture and taste of the best gelato in the city. Order the durian ice cream when available; it’s a great, mellow introduction to the infamous, wince-inducing, odiferous fruit. Coconut ice cream was studded with fresh ribbons from baby coconuts, and litchi ice cream came with a few segments of mango and litchi that were both dense and bright, like little pieces of candy. A few small dates garnished the plate.
Also order some bananas with your ice cream. They come fried in spring roll wrappers, barely touched with syrup, and what at first seems like a perfunctory scattering of sesame seeds. However, the sesame seeds are toasted, and the nutty crunch added to the crispy disintegration of the spring roll wrapper, along with the smoothness of the cooked banana, makes it something mandatory- a light touch to finish the meal.
The dining room at Zabb Queens is cozy, but utilitarian. Organza curtains frame the windows that look out on Roosevelt Avenue, and a recessed rectangle space in the ceiling throws a small amount of moody blue light back into the room. Fabric flowers are stuck out of oversized pots all around, and a flat screen TV hangs on the wall. A long beige banquette frames the room; many customers choose to sit side-by-side, order a few quick courses, and leave. Playing the role of after dinner mints at Zabb Queens is a lidded glass dish containing gummi bears with a toothpick dispenser next to it. Spear a green bear on your way out. Get a yellow one on your next visit. Keep returning to Zabb Queens until you get one of each color, then repeat. It’s worth it.
71-28 Roosevelt Avenue