Northern Larb vs. Isaan Larb at Lotus of Siam, NYC
Larb (also transliterated "Laab" and "Laap") is doubtlessly one of the best-known dishes from the Isaan region in northeast Thailand, which lies adjacent to Laos and Cambodia. On home ground, the salad is made with duck, pork, or river fish, or even dried fish, but it has long appeared on NYC Siamese menus made with pork, or, more often, chicken.
Whatever the salad is made with, the main ingredient in ground and cooked form is the center of attention, tasting strongly of lime and sometimes even more strongly of the short, colorful chiles that give Thai food much of its heat. Fresh mint and kaffir lime leaves are also frequent additions. Great versions of pork larb enliven the menus of such local restaurants as Pam Real Thai Food, Sripraphai, Khao Sarn II, and Chao Thai, and Kin Shop does a fine version made with duck, the first in town to do so.
Now Lotus of Siam appears on lower Fifth Avenue, offering a pair of larbs, confusing everyone, including me. The one called "Issan Larb" is made with ground pork heavily laden with lime juice and faintly flavored with chopped scallions. The salad is more refreshing than hot. The other version is called "Northern Larb," and it seems, at least on first taste, to be more like what we thought Isaan Larb was.
Unaccountably, on the occasion of these photographs, when the waiter brought us our Northern Larb, it was made with ground chicken (the menu says pork), but the flavor was fantastic, pungent with herbs and faintly gingery, but without the slightest tartness. Weird!
Turn page for verdict ...