Tuscan cuisine is different than Sicilian—we know that much. Normandy's food is unlike Provence's—we know that, too. So, why do we seem to assume that there is only one "Thai cuisine"? Why does a single word—"hot"—come to mind when someone wants to go out for Thai? Thai food is a lot more than that.
In fact, Thailand has four distinctly different regional cuisines: central, southern, northern and Isan (northeastern). Each of the regional styles shares some ingredients, flavors and techniques with the food of neighboring countries. There's also a fifth style, "Thai royal cuisine" (similar in origin to Chinese Mandarin cuisine), sharing some elements with the central regional cuisine.
At Sab-E-Lee (2405 Ulric St. in Linda Vista), which is under different ownership than the Santee spot with the same name, the food is Isan in style and bears the unmistakable mark of next-door Laos. Indeed, the Isan region was once a part of the Lao Kingdom but was cut off following the Franco-Siamese War of 1893. There are important differences between Isan cuisine and that of the rest of Thailand. Isan food is brighter and less sweet than that of Bangkok, for example. It emphasizes the sour, the pungent and the bitter.
Som tom is a classic Isan dish and one of Sab-E-Lee's signatures—a spicy papaya salad featuring shredded green papaya, green (or long) beans, tomatoes, peanuts, lime, dried shrimp, garlic, chiles, fish sauce and palm sugar. The ingredients are pounded together in a mortar, yielding a salty, funky, sour, slightly sweet and spicy salad. At Sab-E-Lee, you can pick the spice level, but keep in mind that the scale is punishing. I like spice—a lot—and a 5 on their 10-point scale is enough for me.
Perhaps the best dish on Sab-E-Lee's menu is the larb, ground meat in lime juice, fish sauce, herbs, spices and ground toasted rice. Both the pork and duck versions are excellent. The balance between the inherent spiciness, the cooling mint, the acidity and a deep meatiness put this dish into a complete balance of spicy, sour, sweet, salty, pungent and bitter elements. Though, what puts this dish over the top is the crunchy textural contrast from the ground rice.
Isan dishes are not the only ones on the Sab-E-Lee menu. There's a terrific pad see ew and an excellent central-Thai-style red-curry tofu. The latter is built around large chunks of fried tofu with a bracing red-curry sauce, bamboo shoots and eggplant. The tofu cubes are fried to perfection with a caramelized exterior and a pillowy, light interior. At a 7 on Sab-E-Lee's 10-point heat scale, it featured incendiary heat, yes—with that addictive sensation of a watering mouth—but the balance was so exquisite that the rest of the flavors remained at the party.
But it's the Isan dishes that make Sab-E-Lee special. If all Thai restaurants focused on their particular regional styles as much as Sab-E-Lee does its Isan roots, perhaps weíd appreciate the distinctive differences in Thai cuisine rather than just its heat.