It's a warm, lime-and-fish-sauce-soaked mouthful of northeast Thailand; Zapp Zapp's larb ped duck salad is the best dish at a restaurant steeped in the gritty, herb-and-chile-scented cooking of Isaan, a region whose food shares more with Laos than with the coconut-rich dishes of Bangkok and the beachy towns further south.
Start off a meal with the duck, a double-barrel intro to aahaan isaan, Isaan-style cooking. You won't find the dish in the oversize menu, but it leads off Zapp Zapp's apparently unchanging roster of whiteboard specials. This is cleaver-hacked larb, not the ground, spiced-hamburger larbs typical of Laos (and available elsewhere in the East Bay). Pieces of shiny, parchment-papery roast duck skin had the camphor aura of Chinese five-spice, and occasional clots of creamy fat. The meat itself big-grained and pinky taupe was soft, and rich enough to stand up to a dressing that throbbed with lime juice, powdered chile (we asked for it hot), garlic, and sticky-tasting fish sauce. The fat turned the experience from merely tasty to superdelicious: It lent unctuous heft to the meat's texture, and amplified the dressing's flavors the way a smear of butter amplifies the char on a grilled steak. Like the appreciation of pork fat and big, wallopy tastes that marks American soul food, this is Thai cooking that isn't shy about getting down and dirty. Pure aahaan isaan.
The restaurant's take on neua kaem, fried beef jerky, had less purity but just as much wallop. It's a dish you don't see every day: pieces of inexpensive beef, marinated, dried, and deep-fried. It's drinking food, a nibble saturated with salt and aromatic seasonings, designed to delay the speech-slurring moment when rice whisky and Singha reach some critically sloppy mass in the bloodstream.
Here, it was the jerky that turned sloppy, or at least clunky. The dark strips of flank steak were too thick. They resembled mutant worms curled stiff in the Fryolator's heat, fat hunks of chewy fiber with the donut savor of used fry oil. At least the dipping sauce rocked. The familiar Thai concoction of fish sauce and lime juice picked up a gorgeously smoky breath from dried chiles grilled and crushed up into it, a typical Isaan trick. Like the oak-fire warmth of Spanish pimenton, the taste of darkly roasted chiles suffused every bite with an irresistible charge. It was nearly good enough to redeem the meat.
Full-throated tastes like these can seem surprising in the restaurant's orderly, light-washed dining room half a block from Solano Avenue. The last tenant was a prim Chinese veggie joint. The space is still handsome, with a ceiling of soaring angles and a long cupola pierced with clerestory windows. There's a neat row of Deco-style pendant lights, and greenish wall-to-wall carpeting with a delicate pattern of stains like old jade. Zapp Zapp's huge bunches of fake flowers and platters of plastic fruit look like brightly colored overlays: painted bananas and flocked mangos, scaly sapodillas and rambutans sprouting spiky plastic whiskers.
The plate garnishes can be just as evocative, and more or less edible. That duck larb, for instance, shared a platter with a clipped sheaf of iceberg, outer-leaf lettuce ruffle, and a many-petaled flower carved from an enormous red-skinned radish. Sure, radish carvings show up all the time on dummy food shots Scotch-taped to restaurant windows, but they rarely make it to the serving platters. You've gotta love any kitchen that spends the down time between orders nicking radishes into lush accessories bound to go uneaten.
Papaya salad, another Isaan specialty, offered tastes to match the visuals. It had familiar outlines: a pile of moist, celadon-green papaya shreds seeded with whole peanuts, carrot threads, and a few big shrimp. The taste had the usual profile of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, and sugar. But ragged pieces of tomato flesh like small tomato quarters with their seeds rasped away on a cheese grater and astonishingly tiny lengths of raw Chinese long bean gave Zapp Zapp's version a very polished edge. Even in March, the tomatoes were deeply red and sweet, with a delicious wisp of tomato fragrance. Tiny dried shrimp added a nice undertone of saline, minky-tasting sea protein. And those minuscule bits of long bean, more delicate than haricots verts, had the swampy, leguminous flavor of mung beans. Unfortunately, the ingredient that fell flat was one of the salad's major elements: poached shrimp. The trio were mushy and flavorless, like they'd been thawed under running water. I spit mine into a napkin.
Inevitably, finding the gems at Zapp Zapp Noodle House involves wading through dishes that fall as flat as those shrimp. Silver noodle salad, a clump of warm mung-bean noodles tossed with ground chicken, red-onion slivers, and chile-spiked lime dressing, turned unsatisfying from the same shrimp that marred the papaya salad. Tom ka chicken, a particularly thick version of the well-known coconut-milk soup, was as sweet and tangy as warmed-up Thousand Island. And pad himmaphan, a meat-and-cashew stir-fry laced with Chinese oyster sauce and served over rice, was merely undistinguished. We chose pork (we could have had beef or chicken), tender pieces from the loin, with all the fat removed. Nice. But still boring.
At least the sukiyaki noodle soup had some bite, thanks to a big dose of chile paste. Served in a stylish bowl, deep and square-shaped, the traditional Thai-Japanese fusion dish had a little tangle of glass noodles and fine shreds of curdled egg dispersed in a pleasant chicken broth turned fiercely spicy. But its seafood more of those troublesome shrimp, and firm little barrels of minutely scored, shaggy-looking lengths of squid was underwhelming.
The restaurant's own stab at fusion, Zapp Zapp special duck, was far better. A roasted half duck, just like the one used for that fantastic larb, showed up pretty much unadorned, a heap of velvety flesh edged with skin as dark and shiny as oiled teak. Surprisingly, it came with a pile of boiled Swiss chard and Japanese pickled ginger, and a dipping sauce with the molasses-y taste of sweetened black soy. The sauce had a pervasive smokiness from the grilled chiles that had steeped in it. When we asked for sticky rice a very Isaan accompaniment, like the sticky rice that accompanies Isaan-style roast chicken the server sheepishly told us there wasn't any on that particular day. It was a disappointing lapse, and surprising. But then, Zapp Zapp Noodle House is a jumble of bad and good surprises. And like the smoky ghost of blackened chiles, it's the good ones that stick in your memory.
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