Food Review: Sabai Gives Thai Authenticity a New Setting on Broad Street

It’s a warm night and you’ve made it past the throng at the door. You finally can contemplate whether you’re up for a classic mai tai, served in a curvy glass the size of your torso, garnished with fresh fruit and a tiki umbrella, or the soi cowboy, a slap-your-mama blend of many boozes, Thai chili and fish sauce served street-style — which is to say, in a plastic bag with a straw poked through it along with, of course, a tiki umbrella.

Here, now, you finally can exhale and surrender to the night. Welcome to Sabai, which is loosely translated as comfortable, relaxed and happy. And halfway through one of those cocktails, there’s no doubt you will be.

Sabai resembles a “Blade Runner”-themed rec room more than a restaurant: bright, vividly colorful graffiti pieces on the exterior, black matte metal on the interior, bare Edison bulbs intermingled with Liberacé-esque chandeliers, and all genres of ’90s music playing at party volume. Both staff and clientele are young and buoyant. This room has a pulse.

And so does the food. The larb gai ($6.50), chopped with careful abandon, will accost your mouth with minced chicken aggressively seasoned with sharp, spicy peppers and then soothe you with its bright and cool Thai basil. Similarly, the nam tok ($8.50) provokes your palate — and sweat glands — with beef that’s been galvanized with strong jolts of onion, chili and lime.

In contrast to the vigor of those dishes, the tenderness of the braised chicken and the delicate aromatics of the curry broth in the koa soi gai ($12.50) showcase textures and flavors that have been coaxed out with fortitude. This is exactly the dish you want to face after a night of excess. Even if the origin of excess was the very place you were knocking back Thai ti punch ($10) and hurricanes ($12) the night before.

The marinated pork belly appetizer, moo sam chan ($9.50), is served with a zingy lime sauce, but it still lacks something. I imagine it surely would have stood alone confidently had the fat been rendered more. Similarly, the red barbeque pork entree, koa moo dang ($12.50), arrives a little dry with a less than memorable secret sauce.

But showcasing simplicity at its finest, the sai grok (7.50), a house-made grilled pork sausage served effortlessly as such, is moist, pungent and downright sultry. Meat aside, the kitchen is always happy to switch any dish to vegetarian, and it does so quite well.

You cannot forget to order a whole fish. You just can’t. Cast your line and go steamed, fried, salted, sweet, spicy, tart — choose your own pescatarian adventure. The pla rad joo king ($23), rockfish when I order it — it changes with what’s fresh, in-season and available — is served fried with a mound of steaming jasmine rice and is a lot of fun. The uncompromising flavors of the lemon grass, tamarind and fish sauce blanketing the tender, feather-light fish transport me somewhere tropical, sandy and seductive. If only I had a tropical, rummy, fruity drink with a tiki umbrella to go with it … oh, wait.

The chef is liberal in his use of dried fish, bitter Thai herbs and all sorts of chilies, but it’s certainly possible to have an unchallenging dinner here. A very accessible item on the menu, the gai tod — deep-fried garlic pepper wings ($8.50) — while tasting a little too much of the fryer — are served with a fragrant, spicy northern Thai condiment and a good deal of herbal sharpness. And fortunately, Sabai is open late, because you will crave these at 1 a.m.

And while the wings accomplish the heavy, fatty, food-to-eat-late-and-drink-with quite well, I find the hero dishes are the fresh, spicy, herb-laden ones, such as the pla goong ($8.50), skewers with perfectly cooked, plump, marinated shrimp that are funky fragrant, and hot, sour and sweet, all at the same time.

Sabai is a place whose cocktails are as assured as its robust application of salty and acrid. A place serving up strong, unmodulated northern Thai cooking: fiery larbs, whole fish grilled into rude deliciousness, steaming bowls of earthy, spicy curry broths, sour basil pork sausages and other pungent drinking food from the streets of Bangkok.

Sabai’s verisimilitude could well be creating Thai food for people who eat Thai food daily — and making it really fun. S

2727 W. Broad St.
Mondays-Sundays 5 p.m.-2 a.m.
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