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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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)
Open 7 days
9:30 AM to 9:30 PM