I love being ‘in the know’ – I am a voracious news hound and the backlog on my overstuffed blogroll will never be clear (I was close during my bout with the flu; unfortunately I can recollect little from that week). That desire to be trusted with insider knowledge burns most brightly when it comes to food and, more specifically, learning about hidden jewel restaurants whose patrons struggle between spreading the gospel of the life-altering meals or keeping silent, lest the rest of us ruin their experiences.
Finding these spots in a new city requires either a bottomless budget (and the metabolism of a hummingbird) to weed through possible candidates; or, if you are lucky, the willingness and generosity of a guide (or two) who are willing to share their hole-in-the-wall finds. I am certainly not in a position to consider the former option (on either front), but am grateful to have made a few new friends who are making a point to take me under their wing and show me the ropes around town.
Two of them (he of the guest post and she of these massive strawberry mimosas) were insistent that I join them at their favorite strip mall treasure, Sab-E-Lee, to celebrate the closing of their escrow. Housed in Linda Vista (and another, newly opened second location), this brightly lit, rambunctious 6-table Thai eatery dished out some of the most authentic and flavorful Thai food I have tasted.
Admittedly, I have little to no authority in this area, but both of my hosts had lived in southeast Asia and swore up, down and sideways that each dish brought back memories of their times abroad. It may be a trope that you can know good ethnic cuisine by the composition of the clientele, but it is one I trust and one that applied here throughout the night. In fact, I think we impressed our waiter by our combined ability to keep up with the pace and spice level of the food rolling out of the kitchen (note to self: they are not kidding about the scale – choosing 8/10 for all dishes may have been just a bit masochistic).
While trading jibes about what it means to grow up and be a ‘real’ adult (apparently buying a house does, but getting married and having a kid does not?), we shared one dish from almost every menu category. I had put myself in their hands completely and they, in turn, rewarded me with a survey of their favorites. First, Tom Ka: chicken in a soup made of lemongrass, coconut milk, mushrooms and lime. Next, Green Curry: chicken in a green chili-based curry sauce with bamboo shoots and eggplant. These dishes were just warm ups for the main event duo of Beef Pad See Ew (pan fried noodles with soy sauce, Chinese broccoli and egg) and Crispy pork & Chinese broccoli fried rice. Each dish was well balanced – spicy yes – but not so much as to overwhelm the flavor of the ingredients. The vegetables were fresh, the large portions of meat always tender and moist and the service fun and patient. My only regret was that I had no room for Mango with Sticky Rice, one of my all-time favorite desserts. I am saving that for next time.
Sab-E-Lee is in the corner of a small strip mall, surrounded by competing gas stations. They do not take reservations or have a liquor license (although did not seem to mind BYOB and even provided glasses) and you have to walk through the kitchen to use the restroom (inordinately exciting when a big order is coming through). It is not necessarily a place that the uninitiated diner would wander into while exploring the neighborhood. Yet, after seeing the line of people waiting for a seat at 9pm on a Friday night, I don’t think they can help but attract some attention. They certainly have my business from here on out.
2405 Ulric St
San Diego, CA 92111