The great pumpkin
Sabaidee Thai Grille8055 Elk Grove-Florin Rd.
Sacramento, CA 95829
Pumpkin. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that? Pie. Halloween. Jack-o’-lantern. Certainly not crab curry or wontons.
But, if the menu at Sabaidee Thai Grille is any indication, pumpkin and other squashes play a major role in Laotian cuisine, which, in turn, plays a major role at Sabaideee, where the matriarch hails from Laos.
Sabaidee—“hello” in Lao—requires fortitude to find. It lays deep in the heart of south Sacramento, near an India Mart and Pooch & Purr All Breed Grooming. The interior, while clean with some arresting artwork, feels a bit worn, like a family-home-gone boardinghouse. Perhaps the décor is a parting gift from previous management. Still, there are plenty of jars of chili sauce and chili pepper on the tables, hot pots of green tea, a varied menu, and panoply of pumpkin dishes to be assayed.
While we’re not conversant on the nuances of what distinguishes Laotian from Thai food, there certainly seems to be a slant toward squashes. Typically, larb or laab is composed of spiced ground beef or chicken, cilantro and green onions, often on a bed of greens. Here, the Laotian version contains hefty tri-corner chunks of green tiger-stripe eggplant. The eggplant is raw, crisp but without a lot of flavor that’s kind of alien to the familiar laab groove. After the laab is gone, several tri-corners remain.
The khalii khapou, listed as “curried crab stew” on the menu, comes from the hometown of the matriarch, who is happy to answer questions about the ingredients and volunteers what is apparent after one mouthful: Real crab is used. Chunks of pumpkin and zucchini accompany the crabmeat in the almost-but-not-quite-panaang orange of the curry. The heavily steaming dish is brought with a handheld crab cracker-opener and diminutive spear with which to access the additional meat contained in the two prodigious claws that dominate the bowl. There’s work involved for the diner but worth it as a bit of sneak-up-from-behind spiciness surfaces toward the end of each crab-filled bite.
On the appetizer front, the pumpkin wontons are a new enough addition that they’ve yet to appear on Sabaidee’s website. The site does, however, offer an excellent representation of the memorable quail egg wontons—haw kai nok—which come with peanut sauce or tamarind sauce. Try the tamarind. There will be no looking back.
The quail egg’s pumpkin brethren, spiced with coconut and curry, are served as triangles, sitting atop a festive sprinkling of shredded carrot and red cabbage. A Laotian dipping sauce that accompanies the dish is reminiscent of Vietnam’s nuoc cham sauce. The tum salads, prawns with noodles and various accoutrements are both decorative and distinctive. On the Thai side of the ledger, of which are numerous entries, the tom kha gai soup features a creamy sweet coconut cadence that envelops the chicken, galangal, mushroom and kaffir lime leaves.
A word or two about the freebie salad that accompanies each meal, even the lab: expect mixed greens, a dash of carrot shreds, cucumber chunks, a quarter of a tomato, a spattering of sesame seeds and what taste like fried shallots. All this with a tamarind emboldened dressing. Now that’s a freebie. Watermelon also appears to be one of the prominent actors on the Laotian culinary stage. Out there—both in imagination and price at $13.95—is the watermelon crab soup. Sabaidee’s justifiably billed “famous” watermelon basil lemonade leans closer to the mainstream. More like a slushy, this is a winning and chilling amalgam that’s tart and sweet and titillating all at the same time.
Service can be kinda slow and tentative but certainly part of that is due to the freshness of the fare. Sabaidee isn’t cheap, but it’s a quality meal for the price.