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We translate Chabaa Thai's ethnic Isaan food 

Wednesday, Jul 21 2010
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There are dozens of pleasant dishes, I'm sure, on the regular menu of Chabaa Thai Cuisine. You and I know what they are. From fish cakes to red curry, we've had them all, more times than we can count, and we'll be eating them until the oil-slicked oceans swallow San Francisco and we're reduced to subsistence farming on the tips of Nob Hill and Twin Peaks. Someday, I may even be able to tell you whether Chabaa's pad thai and prik khing are any good. But on my first visit to the Outer Sunset restaurant, I stumbled onto its Thai-language menu, and I haven't looked at the regular one since.

Issara and Songla Sriprasom have owned Chabaa for about four and a half years, running the restaurant with the help of their daughters, Pawaree and Peeranuch. The dishes on their Thai-language menu, Pawaree says, started out as foods the Sriprasoms made for themselves, specialties of the Isaan (ethnic Lao) region of northeast Thailand. Word of the dishes soon spread throughout the Thai community in San Francisco.

Which is how I found out about Chabaa's legendary pork neck last month. I visited the restaurant to taste it, and saw the waiter consult a one-page menu covered in Thai writing. Within the week I returned with a translator. Pawaree says her non-Thai friends are so fond of what they call "the secret menu" that she keeps intending to translate it herself. (With the help of George Pengsathapon and Chez Pim's Pim Techamuanvivit, SF Weekly beat her to it; visit SFoodie, our food blog, at www.sfweekly.com/foodie to download a PDF of the menu with English translation.)

That pork neck: I had to order it three times. The cut is hardly a strip of bony knobs bound together by gristle and tendon. Sometimes translated as pork shoulder, it's a solid hunk of meat, evenly marbled with fat, that Chabaa's cooks marinate in soy, garlic, and spices, then roast and slice into thin lengths. Its exterior crisps up, thanks to the fat, and the roasted meat becomes tender and, well, bouncy. Not like rubber — its texture is more the midpoint between hanger steak and a grapefruit segment, releasing a cascade of juices with each bite.

Chabaa knows the appeal of the pork neck, and offers the meat cooked a number of ways. The meat made a great nam tok ($8.75), or "waterfall" salad, tossed with onions, cilantro sprigs, mint leaves the size of hamsters, and toasted rice powder in a jagged, fiery dressing of lime and fish sauce. But the pork was even better on its own ($8.75), accompanied by raw vegetables and a jaew (fermented fish-based dip) that turned out to be a flavor pulsar, emitting intense bursts at frequencies the conscious brain is barely equipped to detect. Once the meat was gone, we emptied our baskets of sticky rice, swabbing rice balls through the jaew until we'd polished the insides of the bowl.

The pork neck was not the only find, though it was the most captivating. The left column of Chabaa's Thai menu lists the larbs (salads of ground meat and herbs), papaya salads (three styles), and cured meats of Isaan. In the right column are pan-Thailand dishes that are either so humble, so distinct from the Thai-American canon, or so pungent that the Sriprasoms have shied away from advertising them to outsiders.

In the realm of the pungent is Chabaa's gaeng som, "orange curry," a simple market-stall stew soured with tamarind and tomato, sweetened with palm sugar, and thickened and intensified with pounded, salted fish. We ordered the version with fried fish, poached shrimp, and squares of an omelette threaded with cha om ($16.45), or acacia, an herb so sulfuric when raw that it is rumored to stun birds, though, like raw onions, its flavor transubstantiates into something deep and vegetal when cooked. The funk of the gaeng som — savory rather than foetid — rolled out of our tureen when Pawaree lifted the lid; the flavor was at once brash and hypnotic, and when my translator lifted a spoonful to his mouth, he shuddered and smiled, nostalgia gratified.

Some of the dishes will be familiar if you've worked your way down the menus of Lers Ros, Chai Thai Noodles, and Ruen Pair. For instance, the cooks do a solid pad ped ($9.45) of peppers, basil, and onions stir-fried with meat and red curry paste, though next time I'd order the version with wild boar ($9.45) instead of the one with crunchy, overfried catfish. Ong choy (water spinach) is in season, so Pawaree also sold us an off-off-menu plate of the hollow-stemmed green ($8.45), quickly stir-fried with fermented soybeans, fish sauce, and toasted garlic — a My Bloody Valentine concert for the palate, a wash of crushing harmonies.

Not all of the dishes on the Thai-language menu are worth ordering. The "three crispy things salad" ($9) of battered and fried seafood, tossed in a sweet-spicy dressing, was fried to the consistency of balsa wood. The saline punch of fried rice with salted fish and greens ($8.45) prickled and numbed the tongue, and Chabaa's hamok talay ($11), a steamed seafood curry, was nothing like the airy, highly perfumed custard I've eaten elsewhere.

Where Chabaa excels is pork. Songla Sriprasom is the Thai Chris Cosentino, a specialist in Isaan charcuterie. She makes a larb with ground pork and jiggly, clear strips of pork skin ($8) that she prepares herself. The salad is delicately dressed and scented with a conflagration of herbs, keeping the focus on the contrast between the melting softness of the skin and the red onions' watery crunch. She cures naem, a bright-pink sausage akin to the Vietnamese nem chua, until the meat is as firm as a summer sausage and has a bright sourness to it; then she cuts it into chunks and tosses it in a salad with herbs, onions, cabbage, and peanuts ($8.75). She buys a Northern-style sausage called sai ouah ($8.45) — firm and, to my taste, underseasoned with lemongrass and lime leaves — but makes an exquisite sai grok ($8.45), a fermented Isaan sausage stuffed with pork, rice, and garlic. Plump with fat, delicately sour, the sausages are grilled and served with slivers of ginger, minuscule lime wedges, and tiny rounds of bird's-eye chile. One strong flavor might get lonely, Songla seemed to think, so she'd better surround it with a singing, dancing crowd.

A few months ago, the Sriprasoms expanded to a second location near Union Square (420 Geary at Mason, 346-3121), but it doesn't have the kitchen capacity to serve most of the dishes on the Thai menu. Unintentionally secret menu aside, the original Chabaa has all the essential characteristics for which San Franciscans love our neighborhood Thai restaurants: A date-worthy room, decorated in muted oranges, golds, and greens, more CB2 than Pier One. Square white plates and carefully placed garnishes. Servers — led by Pawaree and Peeranuch — who could be working at any $25-entrée restaurant in town. You can even place your takeout order online — just as soon as the Sriprasoms add the other half of their menu to the site.

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Jonathan Kauffman

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