Three weeks ago, I stumbled upon Thai E-San Restaurant and added it to my to-do list, wondering who, what or where E-San might be.
Last week, my son landed a job as an ESL instructor in Roi Et, a city in the province of (drum roll please) Isan. Who know if it's coincidence or the hand of fate, but I see a trip to Thailand in my future.
Naturally, I've been doing research on this culturally rich region, often described as "the true Thailand." Situated in the northeastern part of the country (Isan means "northeastern"), Isan borders Laos, and many of the people who live there speak Lao as well as keep Laotian customs.
Nevertheless, they distinguish themselves from the people of Laos and the people of central Thailand by calling themselves "Thai Isan."
I'm guessing owner Pete Benson (who formerly owned Siam in Glendale and is, believe it or not, from Isan ) wrote it with an "E" and used a hyphen for simplicity's sake.
I'm also guessing there are plenty of differences between the Thai food of central Thailand and the Laotian-influenced Thai food of Isan, but those differences aren't obvious here. Isan specialties are buried among familiar dishes, not highlighted the way they should be. And despite the fact that Thai names have been dropped for English descriptions (the sort of dumbing down I detest), E-San is a very good, perfectly legit Thai restaurant. If some like it hot, that's exactly how they'll get it here.
That point is brought home over a steaming bowl of Tom Yum - lemongrass soup brimming with chicken, mushrooms, basil, cilantro and galangal - ordered at heat level four ($8.95). It's not nuclear but hot enough to elicit throat-catching, nose-dripping reaction from my friend and me, who love every fragrant spoonful.
Prices are on the high side, but portions are often extremely generous; so bring friends and share. Thai toast, for example, features 10 halves of bread, stuffed with pork and vegetables, dipped in egg and deep-fried until each puffy triangle is a network of crispy lace, wondrous with a vinegar-sharp sauce composed of cucumber, red onion and jalapeño ($7.95). No way two people could finish this and have room for anything else.
Order tod mun (fish cakes) in most Thai restaurants and you'll get three, maybe four little patties. At E-San, you get six of them - plump, juicy and chock full of green bean snips ($8.95). I rank them among the best I've eaten.
Pad Thai earns its own "best in its class" award for being fresh-tasting and beautifully presented, each element - shrimp, chicken, egg, onion, bean sprouts, cilantro and ground peanuts - neatly arranged atop a smoky heap of Thai rice noodles ($8.95).
Crispy Fish Chu-Chee is also a revelation, combining the crunch of deep-fried catfish fillet with the velvety texture of coconut-laced curry, studded with sweet pineapple ($12.95).
Deep-fried pork spareribs, piled high on a platter, smell odd (could it be fish sauce?), but their crunchy texture is fantastic, as is the sweet garlic-cilantro sauce spooned over them ($13.95).
I'm also crazy for coarsely ground, lemongrass-scented pork sausage, an Isan specialty eaten like larb. The wrapper is raw cabbage, while the filler is the sausage plus cucumber, ginger, sprouts, onion, cilantro and fiery chile pepper, added at the diner's discretion.
Papaya salad with crab (another Isan specialty) is surely an acquired taste ($9.95). I don't like the small salty crab pincers or the dish's soupy consistency, and at level four, it's mighty hot. Sticky rice (an Isan specialty that is exactly that: sticky) helps cool down the palate.
Lunch specials - offered from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays - are limited to 14 dishes (most of them curries or stir-fries) that go up in price depending on the meat or seafood chosen ($6.49-$12.95). Each comes with a light eggroll, a cup of soup and fried wonton garnish. Choose beef, pork or chicken (we tried green curry with chicken, bamboo shoots, eggplant and green beans, $6.49), and you'll have a great meal for seven bucks - assuming you can forgo luscious Thai iced tea or coffee ($1.99). I can't.
Both coconut ice cream, sprinkled with ground peanuts, ($3.50) and sticky rice with fresh mango ($4.95) make effective fire extinguishers. I recommend them - even if dessert isn't de rigueur in Thailand.
I can't wait to visit Isan. In the meantime, Thai E-San will do nicely.