By Frank Sabatini Jr.
My husband loves Thai cuisine. And so do I. But he’s afraid of the food at The Original Sab-E-Lee because of a dish he once ordered at level three, which caused him to practically stuff his head into a pitcher of ice water to quell his perspiring, red face.
He’s a Midwestern meat-and-potatoes lightweight when it comes to spicy foods. But indeed, compared to other Thai kitchens, the 10-point heat scale here is tailored to natives of Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region. So are many of the non-pedestrian menu choices, which is exactly why you should skip over the usual pad Thai and drunken noodles and take a walk on the wild side with things like beef salad, Isaan-style sausage and duck larb.
The restaurant moved a few years ago from a hole-in-the-wall space with five tables (now Thai Papaya) to a brighter, roomier structure about two blocks away. It still only accepts cash. And the kitchen’s liberal use of bird’s eye chilies still sends you to capsaicin dreamland if you request level three or higher.
After a lengthy hiatus, hubs joined me for a return visit under the agreement he would request level one for his meal. Despite my penchant for fiery flavors, and knowing I’d be forking into his food, I consented.
Though Malaysian in origin, the panang curry is exceptional. It offers an intriguing spice structure that results in sweet, salty and creamy flavors. We detected coconut cream, lemongrass, coriander and safe measures of red chili paste. At level one, it offered just the right amount of zip to balance the sweetness.
As with all of the curries, there are numerous proteins you can choose from — tofu, pork, beef, shrimp, duck or mock duck. Hubby chose chicken, which turned out to be all breast meat.
I veered into the rice category and chose crab fried rice — actually fake crab using pollock, as confirmed by our waiter. I don’t mind the stuff. Ordered at level three, the slow burn I desired became evident about two forkfuls in.
The rice was super fluffy, strewn with perfectly cooked scrambled eggs and accented with raw onions and fresh-squeezed lime. I wanted the dish to never end. Conversely, I’m not fond of eating this much white rice in one sitting because of the high carbs. But I thought, just this one time and I won’t do it again for a long while.
In previous visits, a friend with a steel-lined palate ordered the larb duck at level eight. I sampled all but a few granules of the minced fowl with the tip of my fork and felt the nerve endings in my forehead pulsate the moment it passed my lips. Though way hotter than I prefer, the flavor of the meat and its herby lime sauce sprang forth.
A salad of spicy raw beef served over lettuce leaves was feisty. But don’t expect anything that even closely resembles carpaccio or tartare. The beef was served in small chunks and sported a dried texture, thus it didn’t rip apart in the mouth as gently.
Thai sausage, available as an appetizer or in fried rice, is a treat. A few years ago they were offered without their casings, which I liked. But that’s no longer the case. Nevertheless, the meat flaunts a novel sour and gingery character achieved from citrus and aromatic galangal powder. Whispers of curry paste in the grind deepen the flavor.
Not everything on the lengthy menu is spicy. There’s pad Thai, if you must, the ubiquitous rice-noodle dish that derives most of its flavor from tamarind paste and ground peanuts. Refuge can also be found in garlic chicken wings, which really aren’t so garlicky, plus pineapple fried rice studded with fat cashews and large chunks of the fruit. Consider that a mid-course dessert.
Whatever your preference, The Original Sab-E-Lee provides a refreshing slate of choices compared to most Thai restaurants in the gayborhood and beyond. All of the common flavors we’ve come to know from Thai cuisine are present, yet the dishes are stamped with an elusive complexity that coddles and mystifies the taste buds — even when they sting.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of “Secret San Diego” (ECW Press), and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.