Epicurious Eating: Sab-E-Lee Thai Food Restaurant
Published Thursday, 04-Jun-2009 in issue 1119
Sab-E-Lee is everything that other Thai restaurants throughout San Diego are not.
This tiny, eight-table joint in Linda Vista, which bears little signage except for “Linda Foods” on the awning, specializes in the cuisine of Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region, where fiery chilies grow at the drop of a seed.
The menu provides a refreshing break from the usual colored curries and phad Thai. They’re available, but buried within a litany of Isaan specialties that expose you to things like spicy mint leaves with meat or seafood, delectable pork sausages with curry paste, steamed pork leg, raw beef with lime juice, meat jerkys and a plethora of other delights that are far removed from the Thai kitchens of Hillcrest and Downtown.
Better yet, when you ask for a 3 in terms of spiciness, you get close to a 5, if measuring against San Diego’s sissy one-to-10 heat index. Hallelujah!
Visiting with a gaggle, and lucky to land two tables pushed together, the diehard spice heads in our group (including myself) met their matches with dishes that were daringly ordered between the 5 and 8 levels. Among them, a wonderful shredded green papaya salad heated to that range by miniscule hot peppers playing best friends to the thin lime dressing. Dried shrimp, crushed peanuts and tomatoes were tossed throughout, serving as earnest cooling agents to our heated tongues.
More perspiring ensued from a couple bowls of Tom yum soup (ordered at 5 and 6). The broth, spiked with enoki mushrooms and the usual lemongrass, boasted knockout sour-spicy overtones, with each portion large enough to sustain three people.
Another starter, spicy raw beef dredged lightly in rice powder, was terrifically feisty. But don’t expect anything that even closely resembles carpaccio or tartare. The beef doesn’t rip apart gently from paper thinness nor glisten in wetness. It instead comes served over lettuce leaves in small globules, appearing and tasting partly dried, partly stir-fried. Our best theory was that it “cooks” to this degree from a generous infusion of lime juice in the scheme.
The majority of dishes are priced at $6.95, stretching from appetizers and salads to specialties and noodle concoctions, which means that portion sizes on most items remain consistent – shareable, medium plates that are bigger than tapas, yet smaller than family-style pilings given at other Asian eateries.
And not everything is devilishly hot. Refuge can be found, for instance, in pineapple fried rice sporting fat cashews and large chunks of the fruit. Consider it a mid-course dessert. Also, spicy mint leaf noodles are served by default at level 3, which our waiter recommended that we not intensify, as to allow for the magical rapport of the mint and chilies to take precedence. If you’re a stickler for drunken noodles, which doesn’t appear on the menu, this is the next best thing, though actually much better.
The hottest dish on our table was a level-8 serving of larb grilled duck, ordered by a friend with a rough-and-tumble palate for all things spicy. As the rest of us reached intermittingly for water and egg rolls to cool our mouths from other dishes, we looked on to him squirming and mouth-fanning and pulling away periodically from his plate. He was pleased. But we steered clear.
Thai pork sausages are a staple in northern regions of Thailand. Here, they are available with or without casings and served at room temperature. The meat exudes a novel sour and gingery character achieved from citrus juice and aromatic galangal powder. Whispers of mild curry paste in the grind deepen their flavor profile. Sausage aficionados will deem them a nice treat.
The only item I found to be mediocre was Nahm Tok, a heaping of beef and onions sitting in a pond of spicy lime juice. The menu says the meat is charbroiled, which we couldn’t detect. And the friend in our party who ordered it requested level 4, which at this point seemed like a lame fireworks show compared to those brilliant sparks flying out of our other dishes.
Service was endearingly hospitable, but confusing. By our meal’s end, we still couldn’t figure out if customers typically place their food orders at the small (and often vacant) counter in front of the kitchen or wait for a server after seizing a table. Nonetheless, we enjoyed full table service, due likely to the fact we were seven strong.
The atmosphere is nothing to write home about. Blandness and harsh fluorescent lighting pervade the small dining room, appointed merely by old lace curtains awkwardly framing the front windows. But then again, you come here to sweat rather than to revel in ornate décor.