Wednesday, September 17, 2008

You Likea da Spice? You'll love-a This Place! Sab E Lee Thai, Linda Vista

Sab E Lee entrance - at the NE corner of Linda Vista and Ulrich
Tucked away in an unassuming strip mall near the corner of Ulrich and Linda Vista Road, Sab E Lee is the kind of place you probably wouldn't notice unless you knew what you were looking for - and maybe not even then. I pulled into the parking lot to turn around, thinking I must have passed it - until I recognized the lace curtains and sign right directly in front of me from photos. (The name of the business is not displayed in English, only Thai.) I met my friend Alex there for lunch, and when we sat down at one of the six or so tables inside, we were the only party. The friendly owner, named Koby, offered us menus and asked us how we'd heard about the place. We truthfully told him we had friends who had been there and recommended it, and we had read about it on Chowhound, which seemed to please him immensely.
Spicy Pork Leg with Mint Leaf at Sab E Lee
Though we couldn't remember which dishes the Chowhounders had enjoyed, we still managed to pick one of them as our first choice, the Spicy Pork Leg with Mint Leaf, pictured above. The other dishes we chose were the Green Papaya Salad, the Catfish Larb, a warm noodle salad called Yum Woon-Sen, and the Spicy Raw Beef. We overdid it a little bit, but we wanted to try several dishes - and at an average price of about $7.00 per menu items, we didn't suffer too much for it.
Sticky Rice at Sab E Lee
The food here is notable for its spiciness, which is intense - but there are layered flavors underneath the heat that keep you coming back for more. The Spicy Pork Leg with Mint Leaf was spicy, but not punishingly so, unlike the beautiful but deadly Green Papaya Salad. Alex enjoyed this so much that despite the sweat involved, he ate almost all of it. His evident distress sent me running to the liquor store next door for some beer. I could only eat a few bites before taking a nice long break (during which I went to buy the beer) to let my palate recover. Really, it was that hot. Green Papaya Salad is one of those things that sneaks up on you too, with its cool slippery texture, it's hard to believe it packs such a wallop, and yet it does. (We ordered a 7 on the spiciness scale, to give you an idea, but we asked them not to gringo-ize the food for us.)
Green Papaya Salad at Sab E Lee
The noodle dish was a little bit of a break from the spicy, but not much. It was warm, which surprised us - I had expected something cool. It was sweet and savory with fish sauce, some calamari, cilantro, chiles and peanuts. We took most of this to go, and my friend who wound up eating it was absolutely thrilled.
Glass Noodle Salad at Sab E Lee
The Catfish Larb was not as exciting to me as it seems to have been to some, but to be honest by the time I got to it - my mouth was so on fire I could hardly taste anything. I've had larb before and loved it, and I am comfortable taking the word of friends who've eaten it that it's a fantastic version. It's one of the dishes Koby is most proud of, and something they are famous for - so if you go, it's definitely something to try.
Spicy Raw Beef at Sab E Lee
This last dish - probably the most unusual we tried - was the Spicy Raw Beef, pictured above. I like raw beef quite a lot - I often order carpaccio when it's on the menu, and never shy away from a rare steak, so I liked the texture and taste of the meat quite a bit. I probably wouldn't order this again though, because I wasn't crazy about the grainy texture of the spices coating the meat. That's probably just my personal foible though, so don't let it stop you from trying it if you're curious. The menu said something about tripe, but I didn't detect any in evidence here, which for me was just as well.

As we were eating, Koby told us a little bit about the restaurant. He's from Los Angeles originally, and so is his chef - she's cooked at a couple of very well known restaurants up there, so I'm sure the tiny kitchen and dining room of Sab E Lee is quite a change for her. He can cook himself, but he prefers to run the front of the house - you really can't do both, as he pointed out. He saw a void in San Diego's restaurant market and decided to fill it. The style of cuisine at Sab E Lee is Northern Thai, which he seemed to indicate is spicier than southern. One of the more intriguing dishes on the menu is the "Northern" and "Northeastern" style sausage which is characteristic of this region. There are several other dishes I've never seen on a Thai (or any other) restaurant menu, including Salted Lettuce Soup, Pork Tongue Jerky, and "Curded" Pork Blood Soup.

Since our visit, I've heard from several other foodie friends that they've tried it and loved it, and I wouldn't be surprised if they outgrow their teeny tiny location before long. I, for one, am already planning my next visit.

Sab E Lee
2405 Ulrich Street (on the Northeast corner of Linda Vista and Ulrich)
(858) 650-6868
Open 7 days
9:30 AM to 9:30 PM


  1. Will definitely keep this place in mind! I haven't tried much Thai food in San Diego yet, but we enjoyed Spice and Rice the other day.

  2. Hi Alice - Nice post. I thought the steamed pork leg dish was like something I make at home. If you thought the Koi Soi was hot...we thought the shrimp larb was 10 times more spicy.

  3. mmmm. That papaya salad looks just my kind of thing, I love that its got all kind of things mixed in. Those things really sneak up on you as there is nothing to counteract the spicy! I hope to try it soon...

  4. Ah, the catfish larb... Dan and I revisited not too long ago and I had only the larb (which I'd had before, but a small sampling at the Chowdown), which was all the fire I could handle. It was outrageously good, but gave me a nasty case of heartburn, which I rarely have. It was that spicy. The curries are lovely and use much less coconut milk than usual. The panang is really good and we tried the yellow curry, which went really well with the larb and pad see-ew for a night of Battlestar Galactica. :) I want to try their pad thai next... Kirk said it was pretty good.

  5. Nice writeup and beautiful photos! Against Kirk's advice, Candice and I ordered the steamed pork leg, and it's not bad, but didn't seem special. Definitely try that Northeastern Sausage and Bamboo Salad next time.

    We also tried the duck noodle soup, and it was good though again not as distinctive as the salads and larbs. I wouldn't mind trying more of those as well as the rice porridges.

  6. That's so funny, we really liked the pork leg! I thought the pork was surprisingly tender, and the flavors nice and complex - it was spicy but light and fresh. Then again- I don't cook like that at home! I do really want to try other dishes. The sausage, pad see eew, pad thai, and panang curry are topping the list right now. I have a friend who loves Thai food, so I'm thinking some takeout for a girl's night sometime soon!

  7. Great write up and love the pictures. I cant get enough of this place either. I'm trying to go through the menu haha. Try the Northern Sausage is so good, its not spicy though so I have to eat the chilies on top of it to get my bang.

    I also love the Papaya Salad I take it Thai spicy level 10 and I love the Sweet Heat.

    I'm afraid its already experiencing growing pains. I was their Saturday enjoying my catfish larb and it was packed. I gave up a table so a couple could sit down. I'm going to try the pork tongue jerky this weekend :P

    Masa Assassin

  8. Can't wait to try Sab E Lee. Bangkok Spices on El Cajon Blvd. is quite good. We like their Thai princess appetizer, tom kah soup, panang and musman curries, drunken's all tasty.

  9. My mouth is watering. I MUST take B here as he is a huge Thai fan. Likes dishes extra, extra spicy too....

  10. I don't know if it's just me and being raised in LA (hence eating tons of Thai food) but I thought Sab E Lee was just good... not head over heels as most people are about it. I've gone there around 4-5 times and ordered almost everything.

    I still think they use a bit too much white pepper in most of their cooked dishes...

    It's still better than any other THai restaurant in SD but hum...

  11. Hey, Alice--I was born and raised in Bangkok, Thailand, and I can tell you that Sab-E-Lee is by far the most authentic Thai restaurant in SD. It's comparable to most places in LA's Thai Town with a more accented Northeast style. I've gotten take out there a few times--tried their panang with beef and it was tasty! My favorite so far is actually the Yum Woonsen--it's a perfect dish for a late summer appetizer.