When I saw what was becoming of the Original location of Sab E Lee, I was intrigued. The new location was doing bang up business. I also recalled the sign saying Thai Papaya Pok Pok....but when I visited it had become Thai Papaya by Sab E Lee.....hmmmm.....I wonder?
I also wondered what this place was going to morph into. How would it avoid competing with itself?
So when my buddy Candice suggested a lunchtime visit, I jumped at it.
While the place looks basically the same; other than the large chalkboard with "specials"; the menu brought a smile to my face. Not a pad thai, fried rice, or pad see ew to be seen. It was a deceptively simple two pager with about 14 versions of Som Tom/Tom Sua/Tom Thua with very few items that are direct duplicates of TOSEL. There were a lot of interesting dishes, some of them very Issan, like the Mok Nor Sai, some like Kanom Jeen and Khao Soi cult favorites from central and northwest (Lanna) Thailand.
We quickly ordered four items form the menu.
First up, the Northern (not Issan) Thai Sausage ($7).
Not quite Sai Ua, this was not sour, studded with kaffir lime leaf and lemongrass, and quite fatty. It was a nice break from the standard Issan Sausage on the menu.
I really liked the "Super Star Pork Rib Soup" ($8). As you can tell, it had a bit of heat to it, even at level 5.
We ordered the Som Tom Laos...Lao style papaya salad with pickled crab. This was pretty heady, even for someone who appreciates the pungent Lao style papaya salad. It was also very spicy for a level 5. I do recall the days I used to order heat level 10 at TOSEL, but those days are gone.
It was a bit too salty for us.
The Mok Bamboo - Mok Nor Sai ($8) was something that brought back memories of Laos/Issan.
I love the interplay of dill with the other flavors in these type of dishes. In fact, one of the dishes that I still make from the Tamarind Cooking School in Luang Prabang, is a version of Mok Pa; fish steamed in banana leaves. This is a very rustic dish; chewy pork, with very complex flavors...a touch of coconut, "Lao Cilantro" (dill), green onion, baby bamboo shoots, and mushroom. This was a tad too salty; but I've had it twice more (such is my love for these type of dishes) and the sodium has been much more restrained.
The flavors in the dishes we tried really spoke to me. So I returned a couple of days later and saw the young man; I believe his name is "Oh", who works at all the SEL locations. We had a nice chat about the food here and when I mentioned my preferences he suggested a few things; starting with the Som Tom Khai Kem - papaya salad with salted egg ($8).
This was delicious; the salted eggs weren't too briny or salty, the flavors just melded together perfectly; savory-salty-sweet. Maylee, one of the SEL originals popped her head out of the kitchen. It had been ages since I'd seen her. She told them to add some vermicelli so I could try that with this as well. This was really good. I saved about half to take home to the Missus. I knew She would love this....and She had one taste and inhaled the whole thing!
I also ordered the Aom Soup ($8) - what I recall is Kaeng Aom, or something like that. It's a classic Issan soup. I chose the pork version, though I believe the chicken version is what most folks get.
Just spicy enough; good combination of flavors, the pungent/savory flavors making the soup seem much richer than it was. I loved the vegetables and the heat, which got me sweating pretty good. This reminds me of Or Lam and similar soups I've had in Laos/Issan.
Maylee was nice enough to come on over as I finished my dessert. It so nice to see her and have a chat. She was running between the PQ location and here quite a bit (this location is open on Mondays and closed on Thursdays). Because they still had to pick up the lease on the place; she decided to turn this place into something like a pseudo snack/street food affair, making the dishes that other places here don't serve from her home region in Issan and also serve items that folks have been requesting over the years like the Khao Soi, which she told me took her six months of hard work to create. Currently, their customers were overwhelmingly Thai. Most of the other folks who come in here are actually looking for TOSEL.
So, as predicted, the Missus had me head over to Thai Papaya to pick up some of that Som Tom Khai Kem for Her. I also got more of that Northern sausage and Mok Bamboo. I also ordered the Som Tom Moo Yor ($9). They use some pretty good take-out containers nowadays.
Moo Yor, in case you haven't heard of it is a steamed pork sausage, reminiscent of Cha Lua. Which brought a definite "meatiness" to the Som Tom.
It also seemed a bit sweeter and less pungent than other versions. Quite nice, and the heat level 5 was still spicy enough. A couple of weeks of this and I'll be back up to 8-9 I'm sure.
I'm also certain sure we'll be doing our share of take-out when the weather gets warmer. The Missus loves that papaya salad. And to be perfectly honest, I loved that little twinge of nostalgia, the feeling I got back in the beginning, when it was just Sab E Lee. It felt good to get excited about Thai Food in San Diego again. Simple, no nonsense, not dumbed down, glorious, street corner/food court Thai Food. I wonder what Koby would think?
Oh, and by the way....it's cash only.....another hold over from the old days....
Thai Papaya by Sab E Lee
2405 Ulric St
San Diego, CA 92111