Cafe Reviews

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.

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.

Another winning dish from the specialties list, Thai BBQ chicken, was so infused with marinade that even the white meat had a great flavor. There was probably an entire chicken's worth of meat on one platter, and my dining companion and I couldn't come close to finishing it. A couple of days later, my friend was officially obsessed with the chicken, and I think I am now, too.

Creamy coconut ice cream, served simply in a parfait glass with crushed peanuts, was the lone dessert option, but it definitely revived my overheated taste buds.

And after pushing my palate to try pickled crab, it felt like a well-deserved reward.

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Michele Laudig
Contact: Michele Laudig