Thai E-San Brings the Heat, but It’s the Pickled Crabs That Might Get You

When most people find something they can't or won't eat, they simply avoid it.

As for me, I've pushed my palate as far as possible — gobbled up weird-looking sea critters that turned out to be scrumptious, masochistically consumed stinky fermented soybeans (natto), and forced myself to try liver, intestines, roe-filled smelt, fatty marrow, and gelatinous headcheese in the name of culinary open-mindedness. In some cases, I've ended up with newfound cravings.

I also take pleasure in occasionally freaking out my friends by eating weird food, or maybe even sneaking them a bite of something they wouldn't willingly eat. Years ago, I was in a serious relationship with a vegan, and I considered it a triumph when I finally got that picky boy to eat eel.

Some like it hot: Thai E-San's dishes are tasty whether you crank up the heat or not.
Jamie Peachey
Some like it hot: Thai E-San's dishes are tasty whether you crank up the heat or not.

Location Info

Map

Thai E-San

616 W. Indian School
Phoenix, AZ 85013

Category: Restaurant > Asian

Region: Central Phoenix

Details

Thai toast: $7.95
Pad Thai: $8.95
BBQ Chicken: $9.95
Green curry with seafood: $12.95
Thai E-San
616 West Indian School Road
602-297-8888
Thai E-San
Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 10 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 9 p.m.

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Still, everyone has limits, and I think I've found mine in the form of pickled crab at Thai E-San.

Before I say any more, you should know that I do like this restaurant — while there is an abundance of Thai spots in Central Phoenix, Thai E-San distinguishes itself with bold, pungent flavors and some unusual items that you don't find just anywhere. The service is low-key but gracious, and I like how they've made the inside of a mundane-looking building feel exotic.

Anyway, the crab. I'd never eaten "Lao-style" papaya salad with crab before, but it sure sounded intriguing. (Thai E-San is named after the Isan region of northeastern Thailand, which has much in common with Lao culture).

My first bite was the expected tanginess and cool crunch of shredded papaya, followed by extreme, lip-searing heat. I'd asked for four out of five on the heat index, and this was no joke — a few delicate, paper-thin slices of red Thai chile in the salad had me gulping for my Thai iced tea. Then, underneath the papaya, I found chunks of pickled crab in the shell, whose flavor practically knocked me off my chair.

It tasted strongly of the ocean and was intensely, almost numbingly, salty. (Almost.) At that point, I should have stopped, but I actually ate a few more bites out of pure curiosity, as if it would somehow grow on me in a matter of minutes. For as much as I couldn't handle the crab, it was still exciting to find something so hardcore, and to find out the hard way that Thai E-San really will bring the heat if you ask for it.

Meanwhile, I was delighted to find Thai sausage, another relatively unusual offering, on the menu. It was plump, homemade tubes of crumbly ground pork mixed with chewy strips of pork skin, charred until crispy and served with cabbage leaves and cilantro. Somehow the tangy flavor made it seem lighter than ordinary pork sausage and, therefore, all the easier to devour.

Appetizers were definitely sharable — like everything here, the portions were generous. For nibbles like these, it's a good idea to come with friends, lest you take home leftovers. Lightly charred skewers of chicken satay came with creamy, spoon-worthy peanut sauce, as well as cucumber, red pepper, and red onion in sweet syrup. Ultra-crispy, deep-fried Thai toast — triangles of bread layered with ground pork — arrived with the same palate-cleansing relish.

What I liked about the larb (another dish that's common on Thai menus but considered a Lao specialty) was the crunchy toasted rice. It was still warm, with a nutty, freshly toasted taste that gave aromatic dimension to ground chicken spiked with lime juice. Another salad, a special one night, combined soft, smoky chunks of peeled, charbroiled eggplant with juicy shrimp, bits of chicken, red onion, red chile, and carrot.

On a chilly December night, I could fill up on Thai E-San's tom yum (lemongrass soup), served bubbling over an open flame. My friends decided to order it with chicken, and there were tender pieces of meat floating in the red chile-flecked broth, along with whole straw mushrooms, potent sliced galangal, and lemongrass stalks. I know where I'll be going the next time I need a bowl of chicken soup to clear my sinuses.

Of course, there's nothing like curry to make your nostrils flare and put some color into your cheeks. We ordered "combination seafood" with our pineapple and green curry, and what landed on the table was brimming with shrimp, scallops, squid, and fish, as well as green beans, bamboo shoots, eggplant, and basil. It was indeed as spicy as we'd hoped but also balanced with enough coconut milk to make it a seductive sort of heat. Even plain rice soaked with that sauce was delicious.

Baked shrimp seemed worth a try, since it was listed under "specialties" on the menu. And it wasn't bad — a steamy tangle of glass noodles tossed with shrimp, cauliflower, peppers, and sprouts. But the pad Thai was infinitely better, with just the right amount of sauce, toothsome noodles, lots of shrimp, chicken, and egg, and that slightly smoky flavor that comes from a thorough pan fry. I also appreciated the moist bits of egg and sliced beef sizzled up with fresh basil in a plate of spicy fried rice.

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6 comments
Craig
Craig

Ok I have eaten here now about six times and I have to say the food is really amazing. I first time here was ok not great, maybe it was my mood. I have had the Angel Wings, Chicken Sa-Tay, Beef Salad, Seafood Pad-Thai, Stir-fried Spicy Sweet Basil just to name a few. Great food and overall very good food. Nice selection of Beers, Wines, boutique lacquers and you can bring your computer along to if you would like.

Eddie
Eddie

Just the best Thai Food I have had. Very nice place and good service. Love it and I'll be back many more times

Robert Wells
Robert Wells

I have eaten at most of the Thai restaurants around the valley even in Prescott and Tucson and this one is the real deal. I was so impressed and surprised at all of the flavors and authenticity of the three dishes our table tried (Beef Salad, Seafood with Hot Sour Curry, Stir-fried Spicy Sweet Basil) I asked to meet the Chef. This food is amazing! I have traveled all over Thailand from Chaing mai to many of the islands in the south and the food of the E-San region is some of the finest and probably most complex. Thank you Thai E-San for taking me back to Thailand through the gateway of your restaurant and your food!

Craig
Craig

Really, really unimpressed with this place. The chicken satay was bland. The pad see yew (beef noodles) lacked sweetness and savoriness. The pad thai was strictly middle of the road. The yum nuei (beef glass noodle salad) lacked the zesty flavors that usually make it so delicious. Then we had something unusual: A Thai sausage salad, which was one of the driest, most inedible things I've had in a restaurant in a long time: Just an unsalted sausage, some undressed cabbage and cilantro, and a few chopped serrano peppers. God awful. The only thing that tasted good was a pineapple curry with shrimp. I don't think this place uses fish sauce, tamarind or sugar, which is freaking laughable. Sure, the food is hot, but any cooking school flunky can dump a bunch of chile paste in a wok. Big whoop. Rereading the article, it's obvious Michelle wasn't too impressed. I wish she had just declared its suckiness in less uncertain terms. Oh, another thing: It took 45 for our appetizers to arrive, and the place wasn't busy. It'll be a miracle if it survives the year.

Ashley
Ashley

I really really love this restaurant. It is a regular for me. There Chicken Curry is hands down the best curry I have ever had, and the Thai Iced Tea is to die for. Yum!

chris long
chris long

Yeah, there a good eateries out there and a lot of slop chutes...we get it !

Anything happening on the cultural front, other than the opening of a new mall or sports bar ?

 
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