Isan cuisine is having a bit of a moment in this city, and it's expanding the limited notion many pad thai proponents have of Siamese fare. Nothing against the stir-fry staple, or the ubiquitous red, green and yellow curries, but if you can compare those classics from central and southern Thailand to a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, the cuisine of Isan — in northeastern Thailand — is more like a Tony Jaa roundhouse to the face. It dazzles, jolts, flusters. It inflames the chops and confounds the senses. And more often than not, recipients ask for it.
I speak, of course, of the pungent pong of fermented crab and fish sauce; the holy fire of Thai hots and bird's-eye chilies; and the racy smack of lime juice and tamarind. It's invigorating stuff, be it the nam tok at Mee Thai, the tom zaap soup at SEA Thai's Tuun, the larb at Dali's Lao Thai Café in Sanford or the papaya salad at Sticky Rice. They all embody flavors evocative of Isan (and neighboring Laos) — flavors that are front and center at Isan Zaap.
The restaurant, from the folks behind Thai Thani and Oishi, forgoes the design opulence of those I-Drive mainstays in favor of a clean, simple look, much like their food. The som tum tray comprising naem, a fermented raw pork sausage, alongside Vietnamese bologna, boiled eggs, rice noodles and pork rinds encircling a mound of funky green papaya salad ($25), is an ideal introduction to the regional cuisine. Think of it as an Isan-style charcuterie board.
After we made a serious dent in a few beefy starters — crispy jerky served with a chili dipping sauce ($12); nam tok, or marinated beef slicked with lime and tossed with cilantro, onion, scallions, chilies and toasted rice; and crying tiger, grilled and sliced flank also served with a chili dipping sauce — our server presented us with another menu, a hush-hush bill of fare with even more Isan specialties.
She insisted we try the naem riceball salad, an electrified hodgepodge of ground fermented sausage and crumbles of toasted rice braced with lime juice. Sprigs of mint and slivers of ginger and onion charged the dish even further, while toasted peanuts and cucumbers gave the mix a healthy crunch. It's a stellar dish, arguably our favorite. Scooping up the assemblage with shreds of romaine lettuce elicited the sort of pleasure that only eating with one's hands can arouse. It's the only way to enjoy the salad, though peppery betel leaves are the greens of choice in Isan and Laos.
Then came the tom zaap ($18), a zingy pork rib soup served in a large stainless steel bowl teeming with mushrooms, tomatoes and scallions, and fired with green and toasted dried chilies. Chopped green chilies and chilies in fish sauce were handed to us, followed by a can of chili powder. Zaap, in case you're wondering, is the Thai word for "tasty," but tasty in a bold and explosive sort of way. This pepper-blitzed hot and sour broth was just that — zaap. Bony chunks of rib were OK (we thought oxtail would've been a better choice of protein), though the soup can be had with beef entrails or chicken feet, the latter being ideal for sucking.
And don't think the zaap stopped at the savory items. One bite of the durian sticky rice ($10) will either have you setting the dessert aside for masochists, aka lovers of the stinky fruit, or have you forsaking mango in your sticky rice forever. The bualoy taro ($7), with its purple pearls in coconut cream, seems staid in comparison. That said, it's not as polarizing an ending, so it will appeal to a broader audience, and appealing to a broader audience is the restaurant's ultimate goal, after all. In these exciting, spirited days for the food-obsessed, Isan Zaap is very much in keeping with the times.
ISAN ZAAP, 4693 Gardens Park Blvd., 407-203-1868, isanzaaporlando.com, $$