Crisp, Deep-Fried Fish at Hug Esan in Queens
At first look, the fish appears like it might nonetheless be intact. The tilapia’s pores and skin is a deep, woodsy brown and coated in cilantro leaves, sliced garlic, scallions and little arcs of crimson onion. But look nearer and also you see that the physique has been damaged down into components, every bit dusted with flour and deep-fried, then tossed with a tamarind-fish sauce dressing and reassembled right into a Cubist model of its unique kind.
The dish, larb pla, is served at Hug Esan, a Thai restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens. Its crust is ethereal and shaggy like honey comb, hiding juicy bits of flesh. When solely the skeleton stays, you’ll end up dipping sticky rice into the pool of sauce hiding beneath, or scavenging for forgotten pockets of meat: digging into the cheek, or selecting on the edges of the stomach. A pal started breaking off shards of the skinny bones held collectively by a deep-fried crust, then mentioned, appropriately: potato chip.
This pile of crunch is a simpler-to-eat model of pla pao, a whole-grilled tilapia served with sticky rice, vermicelli noodles, two dipping sauces, and leafy greens to carry every chunk of fish. It is a mainstay within the Isan Province of northeastern Thailand, however non-Thai prospects right here have been having bother deboning their fish, Chiraporn Sornphoom, an proprietor and supervisor, defined. “So we make one other fish that’s going to be simpler for them,” she mentioned.
A basket of ripe mangoes serves as an commercial of the off-menu mango sticky rice, which is topped with crunchy roasted mung beans.Credit scoreAn Rong Xu for The New York Times
Ms. Sornphoom opened Hug Esan in July 2017 together with her sister Jariya Charoenwong, the chef, and Jintana Khamphaiboon, a pal. Chiraporn’s sister Natasha is a supervisor. “We couldn’t discover any actual Isan meals in our space,” Chiraporn mentioned, “so we thought, ‘We will do the factor that we are able to make nice.’ ”
An vital element of Isan meals is pla ra, a very pungent fish sauce. Hug Esan makes it in-house, fermenting tilapia in water and salt for 3 to 4 months, then cooking all of it with pineapple, galangal, lemongrass, palm sugar and a tamarind sauce constituted of rehydrating the dried fruit. The customized combination is fortified with store-bought pla ra, just because a lot of it’s wanted.
That sauce attire a protracted listing of papaya salads, as in som tum poo plara, studded with poo dam, tiny salted black crabs. The crab and fish sauce amplify one another’s funkiness, and make a dish that smells and tastes oceanic: fishy, a bit dank and vigorous.
Those in search of one thing a bit subtler can decide as an alternative for quite a lot of som tum Thai, the standard sweet-and-sour papaya salad. As with all of the dishes on the menu, diners can select the salad’s spiciness; right here, even medium-spicy dishes can require a number of sips of candy, milky Thai iced tea. (Diners can even deliver their very own beer or wine, for a small per-bottle charge.)
The largest dishes at Hug Esan are nonetheless reasonably sized, which implies diners can — and may — order greedily. Moo dad deaw, one other Isan specialty, is fried strips of marinated pork butt so deeply caramelized they style like meat sweet. A fragile pork crepe — housemade rice paper rolls full of floor pork and scallions, then topped with sliced pork roll — displays the affect of Vietnamese communities within the Isan Province, as does a silky coconut curry holding heaps of pork and vermicelli.
For her crispy rice salad, Ms. Charoenwong mixes jasmine rice with curry paste, sliced lime leaf and salt, varieties it right into a ball and deep fries it till its outer edges flip mahogany. She then breaks it up into darkish, craggy bunches that she tosses with a shiny dressing — of fish sauce, lime, scallion, cilantro and chile powder — earlier than including bitter pork sausage, sliced ginger and peanuts. The clumps of rice are generally chewy, generally crispy and generally each, however all the time maintain the dressing’s thrilling, sweet-sour excessive observe.
The restaurant is small and decidedly cheery, with 9 tables coated in blue and Thai tea-orange oilcloth. The sisters have lined one wall with conventional Isan-style plates from vintage shops in Thailand.
“Everything is linked to the story of the meals our mama cooked for us after we have been younger,” Chiraporn mentioned. “Now, we’re serving it to New York.”
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