Authentic regional flavors in a modern setting: that’s what you’ll find at Qi Esarn Thai Kitchen on 14th St. There are the more typical Thai dishes you find at every Thai restaurants, but what makes this one stand out are the specialty dishes that aren’t easily found elsewhere—especially the ones from the Esarn (or Issan) region of northeastern Thailand.
Thais are famous for their Som Tums (salads) and most famously for green papaya salads. Ong said using fruits in salad has always been done, but it has recently come back into vogue in Thailand.
His Goong Pao Yahm Pollamai ($11.90) combines grilled Tiger prawns with gooseberries, apples, grapes. The flavors are rounded by sun-dried shrimp, tamarind, kaffir lime, mint, palm sugar, lime, and toasted coconut. Sweet, but complex, with notes of sour, pungent, savory, its many layers of flavors and nuances are a must-try. Fruit makes it also a very refreshing salad.
Chef Claire Handleman’s Neua Namtok ($11.90) grilled hanger steak salad has a wonderful tanginess to it; the steak is marinated in a tamarind marinade, and mint, scallions, sawtooth coriander, toasted, rice powder, and chili, which all create a myriad of different flavors and notes.
It’s evident that no part of an animal goes unused: Handleman makes Yahm Kor Mooh Yahng ($8.90), a pork neck salad, with cucumbers, Asian celery, onions, lime, and chili. My dinner companion, who appreciates all things pork, loved the soft texture and ultra-porky flavor.
Pork belly is perhaps a more common ingredient these days, which Ong combines to great effect in his Tuhm Tau Mooh Grohb ($8.90), a sugar snap pea salad with crispy pork belly, tomatoes, palm sugar, peanuts, chili, and lime.
The Pahng Jeeh or grilled coconut sticky rice cake ($5 for three), which are seasoned with a coconut egg wash, is probably one of the mellower items of the menu, a great complement to many of the other dishes, which were bold and assertive.
The Burmese tea salad was a standout ($6.50)—quite pungent, with very bold flavors, it is an eye opener and refreshing as well.
On the appetizer side, the shrimp cakes are moist and perfect for whetting one’s appetite while waiting. They’re made with ground shrimp, bound by pork.
Where most Thai kitchens would be content turning out sticky rice and mango, Qi Esarn Thai Kitchen kicks things up by at least a notch or two. It’s no surprise, with Ong responsible for the creation of many of the desserts: they are whimsical and offer a real experience.
Take the Lychee Semifreddo ($8.90), which he pairs with coconut meringue, an Oreo crust, sour cherry foam, chocolate foam, and sprinkled over with curry pop rocks, which at the first touch, explode in your mouth with wild abandon.
Chocolate lovers should get the Ovaltine Mousse Cake ($7.90), layered between flourless cake, topped with honey roasted nuts salt caramel, chocolate Thai chili sauce, and bacon bark.
Desserts have their savory notes, too. For example, the scrumptious Mor Gaeng ($5.90), from Handleman. It’s made with mung bean and cashew, and topped with crispy fried shallots. The latter add a perfect contrast of fried, crispy, and savory to the sweet, soft, nutty sweetness of the cake. ($5.90)