Being Asian-American, I often feel like I'm validating some kind of stereotype by taking photos of my food. The same apprehension applies behind the wheel, but that's another story. While dining at Santee's Sab-E-Lee one evening, I noticed that the people at the next table were openly bemused by me snapping a photo of dinner. While they condescendingly chuckled, my dining companions arched subtle eyebrows at the plate of glossy orange chicken on their table.
Orange chicken at Sab-E-Lee and you're judging me? Mmmhmm.
Sab-E-Lee was a food-lovers' darling when it made the rounds through blogs and Internet forums. Like all popular restaurants, it grew and expanded. What started as a small restaurant with six tables in Linda Vista became a bustling hub with long waits. Division of ownership brought two locations, the first in Linda Vista and the original owner opening another location in Santee, known as Sab-E-Lee 2 (9159 Mission Gorge Road).
The buzz has quieted, so I thought it'd be fun to revisit Sab-E-Lee here in The Wandering Appetite. I visit the Santee location often, and the food is still delicious. It isn't close to home, but I like that it has ample parking and there's rarely a wait for a table. The menu hasn't changed too much throughout the years; it features many of the same dishes as other Thai restaurants in San Diego. Sab-E-Lee has long set itself apart by doing those dishes at a higher level. Curries, noodles and stir-fries can be one-note, but here they're full of flavors from lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric and chilies.
My favorite part of the menu is toward the back and labeled "Isaan Specialties." Isaan (also spelled Isan, Esan and Issan) is the northeastern region of Thailand bordering Laos. I can't tell you too much about culture or history, but I do know that Sab-E-Lee's Isaan dishes are fantastic. I consider the trifecta of som tam (shredded papaya salad), catfish larb (grilled catfish ground and mixed with herbs and toasted rice) and sai krok (Isan-style sausage) to be one hell of a meal. Everything can be made spicy or mild, but when it's spicy, the papaya salad becomes a mixture of refreshing and searing.
Curries at Sab-E-Lee are more nuanced than many versions I've tried in San Diego. Different spices come through in the sauce, while meat and vegetables are perfectly cooked. Noodles aren't mushy, and it's that sort of small detail that makes Sab-E-Lee stand out. The menu is diverse, mixing traditional dishes with dishes that American diners would expect. Kai jeow is listed as an omelet, but it's a savory fried egg that's best on rice with hot sauce. There's even a place for the aforementioned orange chicken.
The original Linda Vista location (2405 Ulric St.) is still in business, and the owners of that location have opened a new one in Rancho Penasquitos (13223-2 Black Mountain Road). Keep in mind, though, that different management means different experiences.
No matter which you frequent, though, please don't bother with the orange chicken.