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Apr 9, 2009 03:46 PM

Sab-E-Lee (SD)

Finally made it up to Sab-e-Lee Thai in Linda Vista today. Before I went, I checked out KirkK's blog (mmm-yoso) and he had several different reviews w/pics, etc. I made a list of his favorites before I went and was glad I did. Went w/2 other friends so we were able to sample a couple from the list.

First off was the pad see ew, a noodle dish with pork. The server suggested we use a vinegar/pepper sauce with it and it added great, tangy heat. A really nice dish!

Next was Koi Soi, a very spicy, raw beef dish, served w/marinated raw onion, sliced raw garlic, mint, basil and a big slab of cabbage. The server asked how hot we wanted it and we opted to take his suggestion of '6'. It was definitely hot! I might opt to do a '5' next time, but this dish was a huge winner for me. The meat was tender and the spice wasn't overbearing, especially when combined with sticky rice.

The final dish was a green curry with pork. This dish was mild compared to the others, but it too was delicious. Spicy and sweet, with coconut.

The place is tiny and it was full with people waiting when we left. I think the Reader just reviewed it recently so it can get crowded. Should also note, there is no 'Sab-e-Lee' sign out front - at least not one in English. Look for the 'Linda Vista Food' sign instead.

2405 Ulric St
SD 92111

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  1. Glad you liked it.

    I tried to call in a To Go order on Monday and either they were closed or swamped for 30 minutes because no one answered the phone. I am hoping they were taking a much-needed break haha.

    2 Replies
      1. re: Ewilensky

        heh heh I didn't know that was made permanent. Thanks!

    1. If you're feeling brave, try the koi soi at 10. It's the best punch in the mouth I've ever had.

      2 Replies
      1. re: Josh

        Don't think I'm up to the challenge of a 10 - 6 was plenty of a punch in the mouth!

        1. re: Josh

          If you are really a masochist, you can ask for the Koi Soi "Lao spicy". I recently visited with some Lao friends, and they ordered things Lao spicy, it was pretty hot. I think I'll stay with "Thai spicy"......

          Also, Koby will make a Green Bean Salad, substituting green beans for green papaya. It's a bit more expensive, but a nice diversion.

        2. We actually asked for the Koi Soi at a 3 (I know, I know) and the owner said it was no good with that little spice and that we should start at a 5. It was awesome, but so fiery that we made it through 3/4 of the dish and cried uncle.

          Also, the noodle dishes seem to be winners all around. In addition to the pad see ew, we also like the kai kua and the ground beef noodles.

          2 Replies
          1. re: geekyfoodie

            the noodles w/ spicy basil (aka mint, on the menu) and beef is also really, really good!

            1. re: daantaat

              Well, we'll have to try that, then. :) Also, I saw someone order a soup noodle dish, which looked excellent. One of these nights, we'll order a non-spicy meal with the soup noodles. I can't handle hot soup when the membranes of my mouth are literally burning away.

          2. I enjoyed lunch there a couple of weeks ago. We actually got take-away. If you go to stay are you supposed to order at the counter or do they come to you?

            I love spicy food whether it hits the tongue or the sinuses. I've never been one to push it to a 10 at a "normal" restaurant, but I usually think a 7 or so is a nice balance between heat and still tasting the actual dish, for me. I've never had anything that was too spicy, with that approach. After reading Naomi Wise's review, we ordered a 3 on our dishes, just to err on the safe side. Wow. I went through half a box of tissues and then I went so far as to gargle with milk. Luckily the flavors and herbs are fresh and intense enough that I still could tell it was good food. Seriously, though, you all must have tongues of steel!

            21 Replies
            1. re: pkt63

              When you eat-in, the owner will come to take your order. I definitely am not a member of the tongues-of-steel club! A great way to put out the fire is with Thai iced tea... something about the evaporated milk with loads of sugar really cools the tongue down.

              1. re: geekyfoodie

                the longan drink is another good way to cool down the fire. There's lots of sugar in the drink and sugar is another anti-burning agent!

                The tom kha and tom yum soups are also excellent! Tom kha has a good balance of sweet, spicy and sour. Most places around SD make it w/ too much coconut milk, so it comes out too milky and sweet. Sab E Lee also puts a lot of veggies and chicken in it and doesn't water down the broth, another huge plus!

                1. re: daantaat

                  I've had the tom yum and I totally agree, it's really nice to have a tom yum that isn't watered down. Nice punch of kaffir lime leaves (my favorite) and great flavor balance overall. I like how coconut milk doesn't play heavily into anything at Sab-E-Lee, especially with the curries.

                  1. re: daantaat

                    "Sab-e-Lee" means "really tasty" in the Lao language (spoken by the people of Laos and NE Thailand) so I'm happy to see that the restaurant lives up to its name. Lao cuisine uses coconut milk in our curries and some of our soups, but we don't drench our dishes with coconut milk like one would find in Thai cuisine. Unlike Lao cuisine which is lighter and uses less coconut milk, Thai cuisine tends to be sweeter and heavy on coconut milk.

                    1. re: yummyrice

                      Thanks for educating us! I really appreciate the information.

                      1. re: nileg

                        You're welcome. I always tell people that if they absolutely "love" coconut milk and have a sweet tooth, then they should go to a Thai restaurant, but if they just "like" coconut milk and prefer salty over sweet, then they should go to a Lao restaurant. There's also a new crop of Lao-Thai restaurants, which seem to lean more towards the Lao cuisine side as far as the taste is concerned, so the curries will usually be light on coconut milk and less sweet just like what you would find at a regular Lao restaurant.

                        The Laotians in Laos and the Laotians in NE Thailand (Issan) share the same Lao cuisine, but live on opposite sides of the Lao/Thai border due to politics.

                        1. re: yummyrice

                          Perhaps you could enlighten us on which new Lao restaurants we should be visiting in addition to Sab E Lee???

                          1. re: deckape

                            I no longer live in San Diego, but I've heard good things about Sang Dao Restaurant. It's not a new restaurant, but the dishes are supposedly very delicious...especially their Lao spicy catfish soup.

                            If there aren't any Lao restaurants in your area, most Thai restaurants will be able to make Lao dishes upon request as long as one of the chefs/cooks is from Laos (or NE Thailand, where Lao people also live). Besides, most Thai restaurants offer standard Lao dishes on their menus, anyway. (i.e. Larb, Som Tum/Tum Som, etc...)

                            If you do go to an authentic Lao restaurant (not a Thai restaurant that serves Lao dishes), you should also try eating a traditional Lao dish called Larb. But instead of eating the cooked version, you should try eating the raw beef version (i.e. tartare). Ask the owners of the Lao restaurant if they offer farm beef on Fridays or Saturdays because rare beef larb is only good when it is farm fresh. The larb should be eaten with Lao sticky rice and a simple Lao soup like Gaeng Keung Nai or Gao Lao. The Lao spicy catfish soup might not go well when eaten with Larb, so you should probably order those dishes at different times. Anything salty like Larb should always be counterbalanced by something plain like a simple soup. But if you're eating a spicy soup like the Lao catfish soup, then it might go better with a simple grilled dish like Ping Gai/Gai Yang with sticky rice or grilled lemongrass pork ribs with sticky rice.

                            Sang Dao Restaurant
                            5421 El Cajon Blvd, San Diego, CA 92115

                            1. re: yummyrice

                              Here's there new location:

                              Sang Dao Restaurant

                              Neighborhood: Rolando
                              5421 El Cajon Blvd
                              San Diego, CA 92115
                              (619) 263-0914

                              1. re: yummyrice

                                Thanks for the tip - Sang Dao has some amazing stuff. And yeah, more toward spicy and salty than sweet, though the whole fish had sweet and spicy notes balanced with a tangy touch.

                                1. re: Ed Dibble

                                  Lao dishes tend to be more spicy and salty than your typical sweet Thai dishes, but there are a few sweet dishes in Lao cuisine. The Lao palate is more accustomed to salty over sweet, because most Lao dishes are eaten with sweet sticky rice so the dishes are made extra tasty (salty) to counterbalance the sweetness from the sticky rice.

                              2. re: yummyrice

                                have you actually been to Sab-E-Lee? How would their Laotian dishes compare to meals from Laos? I haven't been there so I don't know, just curious.

                                1. re: MrKrispy

                                  Unfortunately I have not been there, but from what I've heard from other Laotians, the food at Sab-E-Lee is delicious. However, I can't personally vouch for them as I have never been there.

                                  I haven't been to SD in quite some time now, but the Lao restaurants in the SF Bay Area have some pretty authentic dishes. However, the Lao dishes in the U.S. are very limited because some Lao dishes take quite some time to make and so you're not going to find them at Lao restaurants. In addition, some local Lao ingredients are unavailable in the U.S. and therefore, there's more diversity in Laos as far as the cuisine is concerned. You can only do so much with the ingredients that are available in the U.S.

                                  Lao cuisine in Luang Prabang (northern Laos) is now starting to become the mecca for those who are interested in learning about Lao cuisine.

                                2. re: yummyrice

                                  Asia Cafe is also Lao owned. The menu is mostly standard Thai things, but they do extensive off menu stuff as well. The best guide to the place is Kirk's blog:


                                  This link goes to the first posting, but links to later posts can be found there.

                                  I have no idea if the cuisine is authentic, but I have eaten there enough to know that I like a lot of what they do there.

                                3. re: yummyrice

                                  Thanks for the info. But isn't Sab-e-Lee an Issan Thai restaurant?

                                  When I go there I always leave it in the hands of Koby. I'll tell him to get me anything that's savory but not sweet. I wasn't sure if it's the language barrier or not, but oftentimes I'll end-up getting something that's sweet anyway.

                                  Not that I mind - when I do these things a part of me is willing to try anything that's served to me, and in any case if it really were important I'd order off the menu. But I've always wondered if there's more to it than just a language barrier, and perhaps you've provided a clue.

                                  Now I need to try a Laotian restaurant. Any that you'd care to recommend around the Kearny Mesa/Linda Vista area?

                                  1. re: cgfan

                                    >>Thanks for the info. But isn't Sab-e-Lee an Issan Thai restaurant?

                                    yes and no...I hate sounding like a broken record, but I've noticed that a lot of people on this site aren't aware that the cuisine of Issan Thailand is actually Lao cuisine. Over 20 million ethnic Laotians live in the Issan region of Thailand. Lao cuisine is eaten in Laos and NE Thailand. Laotians live on either side of the Lao/Thai border. The word "Issan" literally means Northeast. That region used to be apart of the Lao kingdom, which is why Lao cuisine is still eaten in that region of Thailand.

                                    You can think of Sab-e-Lee as a Thai restaurant that serves Laotian dishes from the Issan region of Thailand.

                                    Thai Issan restaurants are nothing more than Thai restaurants that specialize in making Laotian dishes that are popular in NE Thailand.

                                    >>Now I need to try a Laotian restaurant. Any that you'd care to recommend around the Kearny Mesa/Linda Vista area?

                                    I'm no longer based in SD, so I'm sorry to say that I really don't have any additional recommendations other than to tell you to check out other "Thai Issan" restaurants if you want to try more Laotian foods. =)

                                    1. re: cgfan

                                      When it comes to the Lao vs Issan thing, I often think it's a question of "borders" rather than cuisine. If you ask the folks at Asia Cafe or Sang Dao where the cooks(in the case of Asia Cafe, it''s Mom) come from they'll say Laos. If you ask at Sab E Lee they'll say Issan. Finding out where the cooks are from is the key.
                                      At Sab E Lee, you can order the food "Lao spicy", which is much more spicy.
                                      I did notice that food on the "Issan" side of the border wasn't nearly as spicy as food on the Lao side.
                                      At one point there were more Thai Restaurants in San Diego owned by Lao, than those owned by Thai! But in recent years, the only one I can think of in the Kearny Mesa area was Flavor Thai, which has been replaced by BBQ Chicken.
                                      At most places, if you want stuff like Or Lam or Mok Pa, you'll have to special order it. I'm still kicking myself for not bringing home Khai Pene.

                                      1. re: KirkK

                                        Thanks KirkK for clearing things up! So your Mom is a cook at Asia Cafe?

                                        I'll have to look up both Asia Cafe and Sang Dao, though I"m guessing it'll be in the City Heights area where I don't get to too often...

                                        Though I could be a chicken when it comes to spiciness, I think I'll start hinting to Koby to get me something from the Laotian side... (I always have him choose a dish for me - something different on each visit...)

                                        Though I don't mind sweet from time to time, I much more prefer the savory side of things, though noting that they're not mutually exclusive.

                                        1. re: cgfan

                                          Oh no....I'm talking about the two young men who usually take orders at Asia Cafe, it's their Mom who is the cook.

                                          Why don't you try the bamboo shoot larb, duck larb, Nahm Tok, or something like that? You'll find that the Lao-style Papaya Salad is a bit different as well. Of course, I love the Koi Soi, the raw beef salad, and they even have beef bile to help flavor it on occasion.

                                        2. re: KirkK

                                          >>When it comes to the Lao vs Issan thing, I often think it's a question of "borders" rather than cuisine

                                          That's correct because both sides of the border (Laos/"Issan" Thailand) serve the same cuisine of the Lao ethnics who live on both sides of the border. They no longer share the same nationality due to politics, but the dishes in both regions have roots in Lao cuisine. So if the chef is from Laos, then the dishes are from Laos. If the chef is from Issan region of Thailand, then the dishes are from Issan. It's the same Lao cuisine, but from different regions and countries. The spice level various from region to region in Laos as well.

                                          >>I'm still kicking myself for not bringing home Khai Pene.

                                          You can order Kaipen in the U.S. from Lotus Foods:

                                          The Kaipen is imported from Luang Prabang, Laos.

                          2. The other night on a visit to Sab-e-lee, I decided to try the Thai-style fried chicken-not something I would do under normal circumstances at a Thai place, but everything here is made with such attention to detail, I thought I'd see what they do to a glad I did:

                            To start with, it's fried to order in good, clean oil and arrives with two sauces- one sweet and the other savory (fish sauce, chopped peppers and scallions-so good) and has the most perfectly crispy, unbattered exterior in the universe. Not sure how they do this in the time it took (about 10 minutes) without a pressure-fryer, but I'm now convinced that the wok is superior to the lower temperature skillet-frying method employed by real Southern frying experts. A half bird arrives (for about 7 bucks) with six pieces- breast, leg, thigh, wing and two back pieces usually excluded from the usual mix that contain the oyster (my favorite part of the chicken). And then the chicken itself: I asked Koby where they get it, and he wasn't certain, but I believe that it was the kind of animal that you cannot find elsewhere- older with thick strong bones that have little relation to those raised in a factory setting, and big- tons of meat even on the wing, which I usually skip for that reason.

                            Sab-e-lee has never failed me- hope you are all enjoying this place as much as ever. They take an interest in the customer and the appearance, flavors, and quality of the food that is often missing in more posh settings. I'd be happy to be required to wear a dinner jacket and deal with a snotty hostess in order to eat here. Thankfully, we're all off the hook. So glad there are restaurants that focus on what's most important and thrive without any distractions from that purpose.

                            4 Replies
                              1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                we've added this to our "need to try" list the next time we're there!

                                1. re: SaltyRaisins

                                  Wow, I will have to check this out, thanks for the tip.

                                  I just wish they took plastic so I could go there more spontaneously. Curse that 90% defective BofA kiosk across the street.

                                  1. re: MrKrispy

                                    I love the quality of food at this place but now I find the customer service to be so bad that I don't want to go back. The first 10 times I went there I didn't have a problem but when I got some spring rolls to go and ate one in the car I realized the shrimp didn't taste right. I go back inside and tell him the shrimp does not taste fresh can i get something else he said no mam you already ate one so I can not sell it again. Then I said to him how would I know without tasting it if the shrimp was bad? He said the same thing again and went to go talk with a lady in the back. He then asked me what I wanted but in a way that he didn't want to make me anything. I ordered the hawaiin fried rice then he said to me no you can only get the regular fried rice when they are the exact same price. I waited there for a while then finally got my fried rice and it defintely wasn't a regular portion size. Another problem I have with the place is that they're stingy. I really like the sweet and sour sauce that comes with the spring rolls so I always order to sides of this when I'm with my gf and it costs me a dollar each. They give me about one dolop istead of being generous. I usually have to order more than two for me and my gf. I just want some sort of customer service for going there so many times. On the way out i asked for a little sweet and sour sauce because I decided to get three and he asked me for a dollar but gave me half the regular size I just didn't bother saying anything. I still eat here because the food is fresh, tasty, and reasonably priced. I just feel that is you don't think something tastes right you should be given something else so you leave happy.