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The Big Review: Fire and Funk

Esan Classic blasts the senses with the bold flavors of northeastern Thailand.

SLIDESHOW

Grilled fish custard, neem salad, tamarind soup, and steamed sea bass.

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The same stretch of the Tenderloin that’s home to the original Lers Ros.

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Two murals dominate the dining room.

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In my 50 years, I’ve eaten spicy chicken gizzards, watched Monday Night Football, and listened to bad house music. But until a few weeks back, I had never done all three at once.

I finally hit the trifecta at Esan Classic, a Tenderloin outpost that’s at aesthetic war with itself. The restaurant is the latest project from Tom Silargorn, who runs three other Thai spots in the city, all named Lers Ros. The original Lers Ros is on Larkin Street. Esan Classic stands just across the way. Same scruffy neighborhood. Similarly bold flavors. Different sort of Thai cuisine.

As its name suggests, this new place takes its cues from the Isan region, in Thailand’s northeast, where the chili fires tend to burn a little hotter and the fish sauce is chunky and carries an extra funk. In this swath of Thailand, Lao and Cambodian currents wash across the border, clearing away simmered, coconutty curries in favor of bracing salads, flash-cooked seafood, and grilled meats seasoned feistily with lime, garlic, tamarind, and galangal.

Lao-Isan dishes like larb and som tam, a five-alarm papaya salad, have infiltrated many Thai restaurant kitchens in San Francisco. But never in this city have I come upon their like in such abundance or in such varied forms. The menu at Esan Classic is enormous (123 items, if you’re keeping track at home), and the options are so eclectic that they’re almost paralyzing. Never mind selecting from the soups, salads, and stir-fries. There is also the array of ingredients the dishes are made with. If you’ve never noshed on neem, here’s a chance to sink your teeth into the bitter green, which lends its tannic bite to a larb-like ground-pork-and-shrimp salad. And if you’ve ever wondered what might result if a Thai chef got his hands on frog or alligator, I can tell you that the former, fried with garlic, tastes like chicken, and that the latter, wok-cooked with chili paste and galangal, tastes, as alligator always does to me, like a mutant cross between poultry and fish. You’re better off eating the other water dwellers on the menu.

In particular, I recommend the steamed whole sea bass, its mild, flaky flesh enlivened by a garlic-and-lemongrass sauce that bubbles from a Sterno flame set below the platter; the sun-dried calamari, which comes in chewy strips that grow increasingly addictive as you dredge them through a sweet-and-tangy chili dipping sauce; or, best of all, the grilled fish custard, a medley of sliced rockfish meat, chili paste, and coconut milk shaped into a patty with fresh basil layered underneath and steamed inside a banana leaf. Unwrapped at the table, the custard has the texture of a tamale, but its flavors call to mind a fish-and-coconut soup. It’s among the most interesting dishes I’ve enjoyed this year.

Amid the jadedness of our been-there, had-that dining scene, this kind of far-flung cooking comes with a built-in hip factor. But Esan Classic’s soaring space doesn’t exactly corner the market on cool. A sports bar-ish bar counter runs along the right, a pair of televisions blaring above it. Two of the walls are covered with cartoonish murals, each depicting a dark-haired, green-eyed woman. One greets you at the entrance with an indifferent expression. The other gazes out with a come-hither look, fingers pressed suggestively to her face. Throw in the pulsing rhythms of electronic dance music, and it’s as though the place were dreamed up by a horny teenage anime nerd who moonlights as a DJ.

Other aspects of the operation lend the impression that the restaurant isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Against the ambitions of the sprawling menu, servers take a pleasant but bare-minimum tack. They offer no advice on how to navigate the options. Ask a question about a dish, and prepare to have to pry for a satisfying answer. I should also sound a warning about the pacing: The kitchen has a tendency to send everything out in an avalanche, even if you plead, as I did, that items be spaced out. Delivered all at once, dishes start to blur when they deserve your focus—the chili heat of one obscuring, say, the tamarind twang of another.

On my second visit, having learned my lesson, I ordered food in increments to stagger its arrival. In the welcome lulls, I fell hard for Isan standards both subtle and assertive. One was stir-fried cabbage, studded with whole garlic cloves and splashed with fish sauce, a beautifully restrained alternative to all the piquant spice. Another was grilled sirloin, seared and sliced to expose its bloodred center and served with a thick sauce of tamarind and chili. A third was a salad of raw but fermented sausage tossed into a jumble of fresh herbs, fried shallots, ginger, and roasted peanuts. It was irresistible, even if the pork blushed a disconcerting pink.

In the midst of that same meal, I had a clarifying moment. I was sipping a Singha at a table near the bar. On the TVs behind me, the Washington Redskins were beating up the Oakland Raiders. At the same time, my eardrums were being attacked by electronic tunes. My tongue, by contrast, was pleasantly ablaze with Thai chilies, depth charges in a stir-fry of chicken livers, hearts, and gizzards. The brown sauce was flecked with garlic, a refreshing foil to the earthy organs. That’s Esan Classic for you. The restaurant might be a multipronged assault on the senses, but your taste buds sure get treated well.

The Ticket: A recommended dinner for two at Esan Classic

Grilled fish custard . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $6.95
Grilled top sirloin beef with tamarind and chili powder . . . $16.95
Chicken innards with basil . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $13.95
Neem salad . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $13.95
Sour raw sausage salad . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12.95
Cabbage with fish sauce . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $9.95
Steamed whole sea bass with lime dressing . . . . . . . . . . . . $35.95
Two draft Singhas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $12
TOTAL . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $122.65

Esan Classic
739 Larkin St. (Near O’Farrell St.), 415-800-7646
2 Stars

  

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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