I’ve tasted dong after midnight before, but it’s usually saltier.

In the intriguing culinary melting pot that is Jackson Heights, one can find just about anything.  On a cursory, three-block stroll on a recent night, I picked up menus for a combination Nepalese/Tibetan/Indian joint, a Vietnamese place, and a down-home eatery that features the most intriguing Korean menu I’ve seen since leaving Boston.

The raison d’etre for my journey to Jackson Heights, however, was Thai: Zabb, in the 11th spot on the 2005 Sietsema list, at 71-28 Roosevelt Av.  As is carefully pointed out with every article or Chowhound.com thread written about the place, Zabb is Isaan/Esan/Northern Thai, which apparently gives it license to produce mediocre curries, as curries are (supposedly!) more of a southern specialty.  I actually tried the Massaman curry and found it about what I expected – full of chicken and potatoes, perhaps a bit one-note with its spicing.  But the rest of the stuff we tried – ye gods.  You’re going to like this place a lot, provided you can handle the heat.

It’s an interesting atmosphere at Zabb.  One very long dining room, much like a hip Lower East Side establishment, only the long wall is mostly bare.  Some figurines in the window and a widescreen TV on the back wall complete the decoration, along with a shelf from which one can purchase some kind of box of cookies to take home (we didn’t).

Would the bare-bones décor impact the quality of the food?  Not one iota.  The first dish to emerge was a seafood Pad Med Ma Muang, which was funny in that we didn’t order it.  After a couple of bites, the waitress came back to tell us that it wasn’t ours.  Too bad, we said – already having taken a bite or two and liked it quite a bit, we were going to keep it.  The sautéed cashew nuts frankly make the dish – a completely different flavor when cooked, and I couldn’t eat enough of them.  Also included in the dish were onions, scallions, peppers, squid, shrimp, and de-shelled (thanks!) mussels, along with a chile sauce more sweet than spicy.  It was, fortunately for us, a good dish to counterbalance the spice of the other three dishes we ordered.

The Catfish Laab salad is justifiably legendary – it’s impossible to describe without making it seem less than it is, but I’ll try: chopped cooked catfish with mint, lemongrass, lime and chile, served warm on an iceberg lettuce leaf.  There, doesn’t that sound sort of boring?  It isn’t; trust me.  Simultaneously fishy, spicy and flavorful, and uniquely textured, it was as new and different to me, having dined an untold number of times on Thai, as real Sichuan was after growing up on American Chinese.  In fact, the closest comparison I can come up with was the Bahamian conch salad I sampled while in Nassau, though the dishes are more spiritual cousins than relatives of flavor.

Besides the curry, the only other dish we tried was the unlisted “Stink Bean with Pork.”  Those who read chowhound.com are likely familiar with the debates over the desirability of the actual stink bean, calling it “rancid-smelling” and/or “reminiscent of Chinatown garbage.”  I’d ordered this in the hope that I could offer an opinion, but I suppose I need to be firmer with my waitress next time – the beans that emerged were the usual green beans, not stinky at all.

The dish, however, was no disappointment – the probably-steamed beans were paired with pork per our request and it was delicious, and the sauce very spicy in a totally different way than anything else we’d ordered.  Should have taken more notes on the dish, I guess.  I wonder if it was the same as the Pad Prik Khing that shows up on the menu.  Hard to say, and I’ll have to order that on the next go-round to see what we get.

Anyway, given its close subway proximity to Manhattan (Jackson Heights is the second stop in Queens on the F and third on the E), the relative ease with which one can find it on the Roosevelt Av. strip, its late opening hours (until 2am!), as well as the recent positive coverage in the Village Voice (Best Use Of Catfish 2005 went to the Laab salad I just described), I wasn’t surprised to see a fair number of gringos evident.  I know I’ll be going back as well – I’ve got my eye on the “spicy salad of cow’s offal” innocently entitled Yum How Dong.

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