Phien's Kitchen Changeover
Went to Zabb Elee today. The menu has expanded quite a bit since the Phien's Kitchen days, but they simply have photos rather than descriptions of the dishes. However, the photos look great, and everything looks delicious.
Lao sausage: so tasty, and very similar to the recipe Devon's mom used.
Papaya salad w/salty crabs: Amazing, but I didn't quite know what to do with the crabs, though. Super hot, as we requested.
Fried Sticky rice: good, a nice textural difference from the standard fried rice.
Beef Larb: Really good, with lots of fresh herbs, a nice acidic bite from the lime, smokey grilled beef and bits of tripe for chewy texture.
Crispy pork belly w/ holy basil: Again, really good, with meaty pieces of pork and a great tasting sauce.
Not what I'd call "cheap eats", but good value for the price, and everything was intensely flavorful. I would say that, given the higher number of menu options and value, I like this place even more than I liked Phien's.
We've only been once since the change-over, and immediately missed the old regime. Maybe we should re-think, although it was Devon's Dad's home-made fish sauce that always had us hooked before, and reading Dinsdale's review above not sure we'd like the current version of papaya salad.
we were huge fans of devon and her mom's spectacular cooking, so have been dragging our feet about the new incarnation. it's also not really walking distance, while veit-thai is, so there's that. finally went sunday, and it was a big let-down.
they've renovated and added a chest-high divider to split up what is a small space anyway. painted the walls tangerine orange. installed a fake fireplace mantle, with a (gas, electric? dunno, unlit on our visit) faux-fireplace. also hung 2 GIANT flat-screens. one of which was playing southeast asian teen pop videos the whole time we were there. (the girl always dies, btw.)
the furniture is very 60's-70's white leather modular chairs which slide under black lucite tables. am guessing an auction purchase but a strange choice with such an abundance of fish and soy sauce.
the menu is expanded and now has pictures. they are small and the resolution is bad, so unsure that they help. there was a sweet-&-sour fish dish, with maraschino cherries clearly visible. that was enough to make me want to go someplace else, but bless his soul, my b/f is a more patient sort than am i.
we ordered the crispy quail appetizer and two of our old stand-bys, the larb (chicken this time) and the beef tongue, plus sticky rice, which was extra. ticket time wasn't long at all.
my first impression when the larb and quail arrived was the absence of aromas. the 2 split quails were terribly over-cooked and stringy, although nicely sprinkled with s&p. the tiny nature of these birds makes dryness a real hindrance in getting at the bits of meat.
the larb was also dry and lacking in any complexity of flavor. the phien's version had always been pungent with lime and fish sauce; heady with mint, cilantro, lemongrass, ginger etc. less than 1/2 way, even doctoring it with the various condiments on the table, i'd lost interest.
after an overnight in my fridge, it had improved in flavor slightly, and was a decent lunch with scrambled eggs, but no amount of soaking will rehydrate that meat.
the tongue was even more disappointing. it had always been sliced thin, with the grain, and abundant with marinade and smoke from the grill -- delicious, rich ribbons of beef. this was cut thickly, the wrong way against the grain, chewy, bland chunks.
supposedly the recipes are the same as the previous owners', however, the new hands in the kitchen do not possess the deftness nor the subtle complexity of the former.
i doubt we will be back.
is anybody facebook friends with devon? what is she doing? she and her mom are truly missed!
On my third visit to Lowell -- last weekend, the weekend of the annual Southeast Asian Water Festival -- I finally managed to stop by Phien's. On the menu I saw the exhortation "zabb elee," or "very delicious" in the Northeastern dialect of Thai. No connection, I mused out loud to the waitress, with the two Isaan restaurants of that name in New York? She confirmed that those words were, yes, simply a reassurance of deliciousness but added that the current owner of Phien's does know the owner of the two Zabb Elees.
we stopped in last saturday and the new owners were having a private party, while waiting for buffet trays to arrive. kitchen was not going to be open. we left sad and confused. friends had just eaten there wednesday and devon was still running the place. she said nothing about changing hands.
devon and her mom were foh and boh previously. they were partners. they are apparently both gone from that location. my hope is they are opening a place in downtown lowell so the b/f and i can walk over !
Finally checked in to Phien's for the first time,
a week or so ago, not knowing of the change in Regime !
I was the only one there, Place has a great odd zen space, of being slightly nowhere.
The young woman running the show said: indeed, she had taken over from former owners and was keeping old menu with thoughts of expanding it. I tried a few things: a special of sticky rice w/ chinese sausage (very nice) some crispy 'egg rolls' (thats what SHE said) (but more like Viet spring rolls actually) (very cabbagey and extra good! maybe a half dozen per order, and also tried one of her phos (she recommended one with beef, shrimp, rice noodles, tripe, etc. this was probably the lightest and best pho broth I've ever come across - excellent. One quibble, I have a phys. reaction to MSG. and it hit me right away with the soup. (I Just don't guess the chemical is helpful to anyone)
The prices are not low, but the portions are large, quality excellent, and they made me an app. size order of the sticky rice to try as well : • )
So...though not able to try it under the original Mgmt,,, was pretty impressed with
the whole act, Told me her Dad was a chef in the old country, and I met her mom who is helping with prep. etc. Def. worth a visit (or two!) Maybe better than ever ???
would like to hear new feedback from Phien experienced hounds...
pho is new on the menu, but thanks for the msg warning. now i'll skip it instead.
it is in a weird little spot and always did more take-out than in-house dining.
don't know if the sausage are the same, but they were always very good. our favorites were the tongue and the laab. are they still offered?