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Jul 23, 2010 08:05 PM

Chabaa Thai Secret Menu - What's Worth Ordering?

Per Jonathan Kaufmann's review in the SF Weekly, there appears to be a secret menu (which the Weekly staff has had translated and turned into a pdf) of Issan-style food at the Outer Sunset branch of Chabaa. Has anyone tried ordering off it? He raves about the pork neck and the fermented pork sausage. Any other gems?

Thinking about heading over there myself in the next week or two and will certainly report back.

Kaufmann's review here:

Chabaa Thai
2123 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

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  1. I ran the menu by my go-to Thai food expert on Twitter (Leela of with the same question and she said "I'd go for Nam salad w/ crispy rice, both northern+Isaan style sausages, 3 crispy things, duck laab, + maybe cured ribs."

      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Sadly, still haven't had a chance to make it out there. I'm surprised the SF Weekly mention didn't spur any other hounds to give it a go. Will definitely post impressions if I go.

        1. re: Melanie Wong

          Tried it today. Per my usual I was dining solo, so I only ordered the Isaan style sausage and some sticky rice. The sausage was very good, garnished with peanuts, diced ginger, red onion, thai bird chiles, and tiny wedges of lime with the peel still on. I assumed that the lime is meant to be eaten peel and all with the sausage. The sticky rice, also fine but VERY hot, which made it nearly impossible to eat this meal Lao-style (that is, with the hands, by scooping up a mouthful of sticky rice and mixing it with the other food).

          Overall I was impressed, but thought the price was a bit high for what I got. The sausages were not huge, really more of an appetizer portion to be shared than a meal. With sticky rice and tax, $12 w/o tip.

          1. re: bigwheel042

            Thanks for reporting in! I love that Issan dish when I've had it elsewhere, but yeah, that does seem priced a bit high.

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              Part of it may be the higher price of sticky rice, which is $2.50 per order, $1 more than steamed rice. Also, for whatever reason it looks like few of the Isaan dishes come with rice, whereas most of their non-curry entrees on the regular menu are priced similarly, but are typical rice plates.

              I wonder why they don't just put these items on the regular menu? Maybe the added volume would mean they can charge prices for these dishes that are on par with the rest of the menu. I figure if there's anywhere in the city that can handle authentic Isaan dishes, this is the part of town for it. When I ordered the sausage I got the typical white-boy-at-Asian-Restaurant reply of a cocked eyebrow and a "have you tried that before??" and had to assuage my server's concerns by explaining that I'd visited Nong Khai and Laos. Have they been burned before by clueless diners, or is there just a secret handbook for owners of authentic Asian restaurants that perpetuates this stereotype of Americans as wussy eaters who need everything tamed for their palates?

              1. re: bigwheel042

                I have no idea why Thai restaurants that serve Isaan dishes are so stingy with sticky rice compared to Laotian restaurants. Had some sausage at Lers Ros recently and got a teeny bag of sticky rice. They seem to regard it as a novelty item as opposed to an essential part of the meal.

                1. re: sfbing

                  That's true, but you have to remember that in Lao cuisine, the staple is Lao sticky rice so Lao people usually always eat most dishes with sticky rice, which is why Lao restaurants have to cater to Lao patrons.

                  Though Issan is influenced by Lao cuisine, we shouldn't expect Thai restaurants to have the same requirements as Lao restaurants. Thai restaurants don't specialize in Lao cuisine, anyway. Sure, they do serve several dishes from Laos like larb and papaya salad, but Thai restaurants don't reflect the same likes that are obvious at Lao restaurants...i.e. Lao people love their sticky rice.

                  Lao restaurants tend to be more traditional so the dishes are usually served according to Lao preferences, whereas Thai restaurants in the U.S. tend to modify the dishes to suit the stereotypical Western palate.

        2. Went for lunch this morning. It is a very clean and pleasant space with high ceilings and cute blown glass lamps. Recommended for people who like their ethnic food in pleasant surroundings. However, those surroundings do come at a price--I felt that the food, while quite good and clearly the best Thai in the Richmond and Sunset (and on par with Lers Ros) was probably $1-2 higher than a typical Thai restaurant in SF and $3-4 higher than one of the Laotian places in the East Bay. They have printed up an English menu with Isaan and other specialties, so no more squinting at that blurry PDF. Nothing we ordered was that hot, even if some of the items were labelled spicy--this might be the sort of place where you are going to have to insist on a certain level of spiciness.

          The portion of sticky rice was quite generous--about twice the size of Lers Ros, so thumbs up on that. Also, they didn't stick it in a plastic bag, which was nice.

          The spicy soup with stewed beef was good, although it was more tart than spicy. Lime leaves and lemongrass, I think. The beef was recommended by our server, and an excellent choice with bits of tender-chewy brisket and tendon.

          The pork neck was the same dish as the pork shoulder at Sai Jai Thai. I think the spicing is better at Sai Jai Thai, but as Kauffman has reported, the texture of the pork neck is really interesting in a good way. Kind of crunchy rubbery with little bits of char and fat. The jaew that comes with was really complex and great with the sticky rice.

          We ordered ong choy stir fried in spicy yellow bean sauce, which was remarkably well done. (I think that Ler Ros' weak point is indifferent vegetable dishes with too much pork and fat). The ong choy stems at Chabaa were crisp tender with an audible crunch when you bit into them.

          The Northern sausage was hot with a snappy skin, but it was on the small side and too expensive. Save your sausage cravings for Green Papaya Deli in Oakland.

          The naem salad with crispy rice was our least favorite dish. The naem was a pink house made sausage with a light tang and little bits of skin (and maybe ear). On its own it was tasty. However, there was a too much naem cut into largish squares and the crispy rice was a touch too wet from the tart dressing. The overall effect to me was that something had gone a bit off. Personally, I much prefer the Laotian style rice ball salad where the naem is cut a little smaller, there are more herbs, and the rice isn't just crispy bits.

          Overall, I thought the food was quite good, there were many unique items on the menu not found at your run of the mill thai place, the restaurant was nice in a nice neighborhood with plenty of parking and a dearth of Thai options. Worth a trip.

          Green Papaya Deli
          207 International Blvd (at 2nd ave, Oakland, CA

          Sai Jai Thai Restaurant
          771 Ofarrell St, San Francisco, CA 94109

          4 Replies
          1. re: sfbing

            My mom and I check out out Chabaa Thai last month, in fact, we had a chance to wish the staff happy Songkran (Thai new year).

            Grilled pork neck had nice texture, but was a little on the dry side. And it needed the sauce to give it extra punch. But as you point out, the jaew is great sauce indeed.

            What Mom really liked was the hamok talay - steamed seafood custard. This was HOT, with the spiciness of those bird chiles infused in the body. Lovely creamy sweetness from the coconut milk, lots of seafood, and kissed with lime leaf and scallions. Mom even noticed that the plain steamed rice was special.

            Prices are a bit higher than I'd normally pay for this type of food, but that's the neighborhood and the surroundings are nicer than most.

            Chabaa Thai
            2123 Irving St, San Francisco, CA 94122

            1. re: Melanie Wong

              the neighborhood may be nice, but it's not a particularly high-rent neighborhood

              1. re: vulber

                "Higher" is relative; compare to SF Tenderloin; Richmond, CA; Oakland's Allendale neighborhood; San Pablo, Fresno, etc.

                What did you think of the food at Chabaa?

                1. re: Melanie Wong

                  Just had the ong choy again and the fried rice with sour sausage. They have a very deft touch with the wok. The individual grains were tender, separate, and whole. Not too greasy with an interesting tang from the sausage.

          2. Finally made it to Chabaa myself to try the secret menu (now not-so secret and published as a standalone menu with translations). We tried the cured pork salad, ong choy, tom saeb, and the boar pad ped. We also had sticky rice.

            I have to say that I was pretty underwhelmed by my meal. The waitress was incredibly friendly and helpful. We told her we like spicy food, so she suggested the tom saeb and asked the kitchen to make the salad "like we do in Thailand." The salad was our favorite, sort of like a deconstructed bahn mi, and definitely with the promised kick of spice. Still the knife-work on this and all the items was very sloppy.

            The ong choy was on the tough side, and overly salty to my taste. Still, I'm a big fan of this veggie when I can find it in restaurants (it's a bit of a pain to prepare at home). I would call this version passable. The meat in the soup (we chose chicken) was so dry as to be inedible. The overall flavor of the broth was nice: clear and balanced, with a strong herbal hit of Thai basil and cilantro. Not noticeably spicy though, despite the waitress's recommendation.

            My least favorite was the boar pad ped. The waitress warned us that the boar would be on the fatty side. This was true, but furthermore, the sauce was sort of orange and gloppy, tossed together with some chunks of bamboo shoot and bell pepper, not at all like the nuanced, fiery version of this dish at Lers Ros.

            Despite my complaints, this was not a terrible meal, it was just not up to the standards of the better Thai restaurants in SF and the East Bay.

            3 Replies
              1. re: wolfe

                thanks for the tip. my complaint about home prep is actually that the vegetable is usually filthy and i'm lazy. :)