Authentic Isan Eats at Larb Ubol
Cheap Thai restaurants are pretty much a dime a dozen in New York — you know, the kind that serve plates of sweet, limp Drunken Noodles and wan saucers of Red, Yellow or Green Curry, each utterly indistinguishable from the next. And the dim stretch of 9th Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen has more than its share, which makes it undoubtedly difficult to pick out diamonds in the rough, like Larb Ubol, from among nearby neighbors such as Thai Select and Aura Thai Fusion Café.
But it’s well worth taking a chance on this unassuming hole in the wall, marked by little more than a mortar and pestle insignia on the window (which are used for grinding the fragrant spices instrumental to Isan cuisine), and a streetside placard advertising the eatery’s signature dishes (make a mental note for later).
Heaven knows, the interiors make even less of an impression than the outside — think a few wobbly chairs facing baggy, plaid-covered banquettes set along wood laminate tables — but that’s often a good sign that a restaurant is concentrating their efforts in the kitchen (if décor is your thing, enjoy the “Love Me (Pork) Tenders” down the street at Thai Select). And that’s certainly the case at Larb Ubol, where chef Ratchanee Sumpatboon (formerly of the well-respected, Zabb Elee) draws on the dynamic flavors of her homeland, Isan, a Northeast region of Thailand sorely underrepresented in New York.
As the name suggests, you’d be remiss not to order the Larb; a traditional, chopped meat salad (get the pork or duck variations), served with thick rounds of cucumber and wedges of raw cabbage to help mitigate the heat.
*Note: Unless you’re entirely adverse to the burn, go ahead and order your dishes “spicy.” Electing for “regular,” even though “mild” is an option, results in dishes that are woefully tame.
There are also an assortment of lime and chile-drenched Papaya Salads, from the straightforward Som Tum Thai (dried shrimp and peanuts) to the Som Tum Poo Plara, an appealingly funky, seafaring mix of tangy fruit, preserved crab and pickled fish, and a meal-worthy Som Tum Muar Zuar, sporting shrimp, chunks of BBQ pork, tomatoes, and long beans.
We were intrigued by the proffered side of sautéed Morning Glory (the vibrant purple flowers have all but overtaken our backyard), but served sans petals, they’re merely a pleasant plate of greens, laked in a dark brown sauce rich with garlic. And while tasty, best to forgo standard stir-fries of meat + eggplant + basil + bell pepper + curry and go for more unique dishes, such as Ped Pa Lo, a duck stew dotted with Chinese broccoli, or Sai Krog Esan, bright red links of fermented pork sausage which Sumpatboon makes in-house. Because honestly, you can get your fix of cut-rate Pad Thai almost anywhere else in Hell’s Kitchen.