Sab-E-Lee Restaurant2405 Ulric St.Linda Vista858-650-6868
It's pretty rare that I'll eat at the same place twice in one week, yet I scheduled dinner at Sab-E-Lee and then lunch there the following day—even before I'd taken a single bite. I just had a feeling that it would be worth returning. It helped that there'd already been advance taste-reconnaissance done by a good friend, whose food blog is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to new food in town. He'd already become a regular at the Linda Vista restaurant, only a month into its existence, making multiple posts on his site and sending me a you-need-to-eat-here e-mail.
The last time I'd had really exciting Thai food was on the east side of Portland, at a place called Pok Pok.
Sab-E-Lee is probably the coziest restaurant I've eaten in lately—there's space for maybe 15 people in the modest room, and Koby, the owner, is warm and welcoming.
Sab-E-Lee's menu—a paper printout more than 100 items long—looked daunting, so my friend suggested a couple of dishes that he'd already tested. Our foursome was made up of non-finicky eaters, ideal for when you want to try things like spicy raw beef and chopped catfish salad, which ended up being my two favorites. Slices of beef were marinated to a firm but tender texture in a mix of chilies, fresh mint, crescents of red onion, lime juice and shreds of kaffir lime leaves. A sprinkling of homemade kao kua, rough-ground toasted rice, adhered to the meat, giving it a nice crunch. Leaves of raw cabbage helped dampen the dish's searing hotness—the kind of heat that smacks you around a little but that you just can't seem to quit. Extra whole Thai chilies come alongside in case you're a real masochist.
The catfish salad, or larb—composed of grilled catfish filets chopped then seasoned with fragrant lemongrass, fish sauce, more chilies and citrus—was a little less spicy than the beef, but still wonderfully pungent. Each bite hit almost every flavor receptor simultaneously, waking up taste buds that have not seen action in many meals. Bits of sticky rice provided the calm between storms and cool drinks gave relief, too. There's Thai iced tea and coffee, but Sab-E-Lee allows you to bring in beer from home or procured, in a pinch, from the adjacent liquor store. Just avoid the green or red sodas on the menu— they're diluted shaved-ice syrup, artificially flavored and colored.
The pahd-see-ew, my most-often ordered Thai dish, is excellent here; the wide rice noodles, glazed with sweet soy, have a great charred flavor from their tumble over high heat. Warm bamboo shoot salad was also good, as was the Northern-style Thai sausage, subtly spiced with curry and filled with big chunks of pork. I liked it better than the northeastern-style sausage used in the fried rice that came instead of the salted-fish fried rice we'd intended to order.
I woke up the next day craving Sab-E-Lee and spent the morning thinking about what to order for lunch. Three of us shared more catfish larb, tangy green papaya salad, a duck noodle soup and nahm tok—sort of a cooked version of the raw beef from the previous night. Our panang curry was also fantastic, with a depth of flavor not usually found in most curry paste and coconut milk combinations.
The food is not tame in heat, flavor or ingredients, but the staff will prepare dishes according to an adjustable number scale of hotness or substitute tofu in most meat preparations. I'm happy, though, to eat everything just as the chef thinks it should be—spicy, sour, salty, sweet and delicious.