Even prior to 2020, in spite of New York City’s second most popular nickname, great places to grab dinner in the middle of the night were a relative few. When Pei Wei and Bryan Chunton opened Zaab Zaab with chef Aniwat Khotsopa in Elmhurst, Queens this past spring, it was with the 2022-ambitious closing time of 1am. Zaab Zaab accrued enough accolades, like a Michelin Bib Gourmand to crowd out room for improvement in the months that followed. But it extended operations until 4am daily a few weeks ago.
Its dining room is as intimate as a slumber party and traced with cheery hues as well as a detailed mural on the ceiling. Enter and there are five tables between a tightly upholstered banquette and backless but sturdy stools to the left. A large mirror creates the illusion of more space and reflects the physical effects (a single tear; a sharp inhale) of Khotsopa’s more heat-forward recipes. A bar, which serves mostly beer and wine, plus a couple of sake options (which are also spun into über–fruity cocktails) is to the right. A sidewalk patio up front is covered in inclement weather, and there’s a street shed past the curb.
Zaab Zaab promises “the true flavors of Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region,” like its larb ped Udon, which is very good. Minced duck breast and gizzards are mixed with crumbly, plucky, ginger-adjacent galangal, fried garlic and lime leaves, mint, roasted rice powder, crushed chili and fish sauce, studded with fried waterfowl skin and served alongside leafy greens for grabbing or wrapping ($19.95). Its trio of duck creates a dynamic, pronounced flavor/texture pair, even among oodles of other ingredients. Never guess, because you might be among friends who find refrigerator aisle guac hot, but the larb ped Udon does not approach Zaab Zabb’s most fiery items, and instead seems like it would be acceptable to a mid-level tolerance.
The gaeng om with beef shank ($18.95) is another contender for signature dish, significantly hotter, and among the most nuanced eye-watering experiences I’ve had in a long time. The meat is immersed in herbal curry braised with Thai eggplant, lemongrass, lime leaves, and galangal, adorned with an herb box worth of dill. The first sips of broth are brightly botanical and clear, conjuring soft, verdant images. Further dives catch chili that builds to a near burst. It’s the city’s best new soup and it’s terrifically fun to eat.
Nuer yang ($24.95) is plated with a spectrum of capsaicin notes. Its flame-grilled, sliced Crying Tiger ribeye, with strips ranging from fatty to nicely marbled, is seasoned with a light touch that brings the earthy beef just to a volume that will get your attention. But its accompanying jaew duo amplifies the understated preparation with its alternately spicy and searing, and deeply bitter sauces. Each creates a totally different, singularly satisfying profile from bite to bite.
A pile of wonderfully golden moo tod pla ra ($16.95) is similarly situated. Pork belly is marinated in fermented fish sauce before frying. It’s served exquisitely crisp with a subtle funk enlivened by more marvelous jaew; an ideal midnight snack that’s decadent and delicious, and the type of shared dish that just sparks fun.
Greens and soothing, palate-zagging herbs like bitter sadao and Thai basil top tables to slake any alarms. A surprisingly mild som tum pla ra with shredded green papaya, bird’s eye chiles, lime, and the option to add black crab ($18) might do the trick, too, skewing closer to refreshing than bracing. Each of three som tum varieties are clay krok-pounded by hand to crack (not mash!) open fragrance and flavor before plating.
The Vibe: Welcoming in an intimate, colorful space.
The Food: Zaab Zaab’s promised “true flavors of Thailand’s Northeastern Isaan region” include an incredible gaeng om with beef shank to top soup all over NYC, terrific larb ped Udon and decadent golden moo tod pla ra.
The Drinks: Beer, wine and sake, plus a couple of cocktails that incorporate the latter and a great Thai iced tea.
Zaab Zaab is located at 76-04 Woodside Avenue. It is open from noon to 4am each day.