At first glance, the fish looks like it may still be intact. The tilapia’s skin is a deep, woodsy brown and covered in cilantro leaves, sliced garlic, scallions and little arcs of red onion. But look closer and you see that the body has been broken down into parts, each piece dusted with flour and deep-fried, then tossed with a tamarind-fish sauce dressing and reassembled into a Cubist version of its original form.
The dish, larb pla, is served at Hug Esan, a Thai restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens. Its crust is airy and shaggy like honey comb, hiding juicy bits of flesh. When only the skeleton remains, you’ll find yourself dipping sticky rice into the pool of sauce hiding below, or scavenging for forgotten pockets of meat: digging into the cheek, or picking at the edges of the belly. A friend began breaking off shards of the thin bones held together by a deep-fried crust, then said, correctly: potato chip.
This pile of crunch is a simpler-to-eat version of pla pao, a whole-grilled tilapia served with sticky rice, vermicelli noodles, two dipping sauces, and leafy greens to hold each bite of fish. It is a mainstay in the Isan Province of northeastern Thailand, but non-Thai customers here were having trouble deboning their fish, Chiraporn Sornphoom, an owner and manager, explained. “So we make another fish that’s going to be easier for them,” she said.
Ms. Sornphoom opened Hug Esan in July 2017 with her sister Jariya Charoenwong, the chef, and Jintana Khamphaiboon, a friend. Chiraporn’s sister Natasha is a manager. “We couldn’t find any real Isan food in our area,” Chiraporn said, “so we thought, ‘We will do the thing that we can make great.’ ”
An important component of Isan food is pla ra, a particularly pungent fish sauce. Hug Esan makes it in-house, fermenting tilapia in water and salt for three to four months, then cooking it all with pineapple, galangal, lemongrass, palm sugar and a tamarind sauce made from rehydrating the dried fruit. The custom mixture is fortified with store-bought pla ra, simply because so much of it is needed.
That sauce dresses a long list of papaya salads, as in som tum poo plara, studded with poo dam, tiny salted black crabs. The crab and fish sauce amplify each other’s funkiness, and make a dish that smells and tastes oceanic: fishy, a little dank and full of life.
Those looking for something a bit subtler can opt instead for a variety of som tum Thai, the traditional sweet-and-sour papaya salad. As with all the dishes on the menu, diners can choose the salad’s spiciness; here, even medium-spicy dishes can require a few sips of sweet, milky Thai iced tea. (Diners can also bring their own beer or wine, for a small per-bottle fee.)
The largest dishes at Hug Esan are still moderately sized, which means diners can — and should — order greedily. Moo dad deaw, another Isan specialty, is fried strips of marinated pork butt so deeply caramelized they taste like meat candy. A delicate pork crepe — housemade rice paper rolls filled with ground pork and scallions, then topped with sliced pork roll — reflects the influence of Vietnamese communities in 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, forms it into a ball and deep fries it until its outer edges turn mahogany. She then breaks it up into dark, craggy bunches that she tosses with a bright dressing — of fish sauce, lime, scallion, cilantro and chile powder — before adding sour pork sausage, sliced ginger and peanuts. The clumps of rice are sometimes chewy, sometimes crispy and sometimes both, but always hold the dressing’s thrilling, sweet-sour high note.
The restaurant is small and decidedly cheery, with nine tables covered in blue and Thai tea-orange oilcloth. The sisters have lined one wall with traditional Isan-style plates from antique stores in Thailand.
“Everything is connected to the story of the food our mama cooked for us when we were young,” Chiraporn said. “Now, we are serving it to New York.”
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