Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Thai Life (Zabb Thai; 34-11 30th Avenue)

In Michelin's 2008 guide to New York City, you will find an entry for Zabb Queens -- a restaurant with "fantastic Thai food," a place known for "showcasing the cuisine of the Isaan region." You should not make the mistake of confusing that restaurant, which is in Jackson Heights, with Zabb Thai, a garden-variety Thai joint that has taken up residence in the former home of Thai Angel and may in fact still be Thai Angel, only renamed to seize upon the other Zabb's notoriety.

Maybe it's a snobbery born of having truly outstanding Thai restaurants nearby in Woodside and Jackson Heights that leaves us underwhlemed with the likes of Zabb Thai. Zabb Thai's success, such as it is, seems to have less to do with the food it serves but with its tasteful decor. It's dimly lit but not so dark that you need a flashlight for the menu. A leather banquette runs along one wall, and in back is a well-stuffed leather couch (purpose: unknown). There are bas reliefs of elephant-headed, multilimbed gods on gray, stucco walls, and one wall of exposed, faux-unfinished stonework. Also, toward the hostess stand in the back, are several shelves of flowers in jars full of lava-lamp goo illuminated with blue-, green- and red-colored lights. As arbitrary as that is for ornament, it looks less weird that it probably sounds. On the night we visited the music seemed a bit incongruous -- loud teen pop that made it difficult to talk. It seemed more appropriate for Charlotte Russe than a restaurant. But on the whole, judging from surface appearances alone, we could convince ourselves we weren't doing something mediocre by eating there.

As a consequence, Zabb Thai seems reasonably busy most nights, which grans diners an additional level of self-protection: You'll never go in there and be spooked by being the only customer. You won't have to ask youselves: What's wrong with us that we're eating here?

The food, however, was not memorable. A tofu-taro appetizer was hot and pleasingly greasy, but no particular flavor broke through. We felt we had to order the Pad Prik Sod because it was listed on the menu twice.

We figured that meant they really wanted us to order it, but it turned out to be a bit underwhelming. As you can see below, there's just not much excitement to it: just big pieces of onion and pepper.

Our other entree, tentatively recommended by our very reluctant waitress, was fried chicken nuggets in what was supposed to be a spicy sauce.

It turned out that this was hardly spicy at all, but seemed instead vaguely dumbed down for less adventuresome palates.

But then, Zabb Thai is not about adventure. It's instead catering to a certain New York City lifestyle that involves eating out almost every night and requires that there be ethnic restaurants with vaguely chic decor that are nonetheless convenient, familiar, and affordable. We, however, like Thai food enough to avoid making it a lifestyle accoutrement.

As you can see in the menu picture above, it's reasonable.
Will we go again: Not with Sri Pra Phai nearby.


PCM said...

You know, I was disappointed with Zabb just like you. And for the same reasons, too.

But I remember eating at their old place near Sri a few times (I could never remember which night Sri was closed, so I think twice we ended up at Zabb).

Zabb wasn't as good as Sri, but Zabb was damn good. I was really excited to see it here. But I don't think it's the same place (or the same cook) that got all the rave reviews.

A shame.

Sri isn't that far, but I probably go there once a month at best. If it were on 30th Ave, I'd be ther every week.

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