Som Tum and Other Isan Salads at Zaab Thai

Categories: Eat This
Jonathan Kauffman
Zaab's papaya salad with peanuts and salted crab, $7.95.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slowly, slowly, Isan food from northeastern Thailand is filtering into San Francisco. You can find Isan dishes on the menus of Thai House Express and Lers Ros, and the semisecret Thai-language menu at Chabaa (a few months ago, I had it translated) is heavy with Isan charcuterie, salads, and stir-fried dishes. Zaab Thai Cuisine, which opened on Clement Street in August, is the first S.F. restaurant I know of to advertise it specializes in Isan food. 

Zaab's strength is quite obviously Isan salads ― the menu lists three pages of them (including a long vegetarian section). Owner Kriengkrai Amornratanakosol tops satiny folds of roasted eggplant with just-cooked ground chicken, mint leaves, and a sweet-sour lime dressing. He tosses pungent bamboo shoots with chiles, onions, and toasted rice powder, a northeastern favorite familiar to anyone who's made her way through a Bangkok market.

Luis Chong
Of course, you can find a half-dozen versions of larb, or chopped meat salad, and Zaab offers 10 variations on the region's most renowned dish, som tum (papaya salad). The version with grilled prawns is the most approachable, especially if you're not Thai and you forget to beg for it spiced at full strength. Others may be drawn to the more fiery version with salted crab and peanuts; wafting far above the fish sauce and lime, you catch the clean, fresh-water aroma of the tiny crab whose blue-shelled flesh is scattered throughout the heap of shredded fruit.  

Stay focused on the salads. Zaab's menu is chockablock with all the mediocre Thai curries and sugary stir-fries we all know, as denuded of their regional origins as spaghetti in red sauce and palak paneer. And the restaurant's Isan sausage and pork neck are nowhere near as good as Chabaa's versions. But there's enough variety and novelty in the salad section of the menu to keep a return visitor intrigued for weeks.

Zaab Thai Cuisine: 908 Clement (at 11th Ave.), 831-4010.

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