Portland Monthly’s Dish of the Year 2017: Spicy Thai Laabs at Paadee
It’s exciting to discover one new dish in a restaurant. But an entire world of eating? That’s what happened in July, when Paadee decided to mutate, twice weekly, from a casually chic Thai spot into a bustling Issan outpost, with shoulder-swaying music and little-known “laabs” from northeastern Thailand at its center. Laabs (say LAHB) are spicy “salads,” for lack of a better word; every Monday and Tuesday evening, Paadee plunges us into their limey, fish-sauced, herb-busting hearts. Some versions simply keep it Thai-real, built around ground spicy meat (pork, duck, or beef), crackling skin, rich liver, and fried herbs, best plucked up with a side of sticky rice. Others integrate local ingredients. “How an Issan person would cook in Portland,” as chef-owner Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom puts it, “with beautiful seafood and produce in their backyard.”
That approach produced the year’s single-dish highs: silky, thrashing, albacore tuna laab; and a king salmon version that makes room for angry heat growls, delicate dill, and sweet cherry tomatoes. (Imagine that on a bagel.) We’re calling it here and now: poke has peaked. Long live laab. The Thai omelet laab is its own bad self, with fluffy egg strips, heat screams, and raucous little clusters of curried fried rice everywhere. Order three, backed by lip-smacking cocktails from ace bar man Evan Zimmerman, who spearheaded Portland’s smoked-ice moment way back when.