“I guess Queens is still the only place to go,” read a lament about the state of Thai food in Brooklyn. To put a finer point on, it Elmhurst, is the place to go. And, to narrow it down even further, Hug Esan, is the place, at least so it’s been for the past 11 days for me and a rather large chunk of the local Thai community.
I’d been watching the space—carved out of the first floor of an apartment building—for months. The name might sound like a character from a Thai version of Starsky and Hutch, but Hug means “love” in Thailand’s Esan dialect.
On my first visit I really wanted the gai yang ($10) from the menu’s Hug Esan Signature section, but sadly the grilled marinated half chicken had flown the coop. So instead I went for larb moo ($7), a panoply of pork parts of varying texture and flavor—ears, liver, and stomach—dressed in a bright chili lime sauce with roasted rice powder fenced in by a small grove of mint and a wall of cucumbers. Ordered medium spicy it was just funky and hot enough to get me going.
Slightly higher on the funk meter was tum poo plara ($9), papaya salad with salted crab and pickled fish. All the salt and lime make for a fine tonic on a sweltering summer’s day. Crunching through the preserved crabs—salty and sweet—is delightful, although you’ll need to wash your hands afterwards. There’s plenty of juices to dredge sticky rice through too. I also ordered grilled sticky rice ($3), which turned out to be two disks of sticky rice with a crunchy coating of egg. It’s really, really good, so if you’re dining with someone else, get two orders.
The gai yang gods smiled on my next visit. As soon as the bird came out, I could see why they run out fast. The burnished brown skin was studded with coriander and lemon grass and the white meat was weeping with juices. It tasted even better than it looked. There was almost no need for the accompanying sauce. Before it’s baked the bird is slathered in a mixture of lemon grass, lime leaf, mushroom soy sauce, coriander, salt, and turmeric. Then it gets a nice pan fry. “You can do it. It’s easy,” one of the cooks told me after explaining the process. I doubt if I could pull it off. Plus it’s more fun to eat in Hug’s dining room as Esan music videos play on the stereo.
Yesterday I was Hugging it out again with a dear friend who knows a thing or three about Thai food. We split an order of khao piak sen ($10), a rice noodle soup with Vietnamese pork sausages, pork ribs, and pork blood. The consistency of the noodles and the soup’s relative mellowness had us comparing it to Campbell’s chicken noodle—totally comforting and spicy without blowing one’s head off. In keeping with the pork theme we also had some lovely marinated fried pork ($7).
A poem written in Esan graces a wall in the center of Hug’s dining room. I’m told the message is that even when one is well and happy one still needs friends in a foreign land. The first stanza reads “When one is well (as in wealthier), even just a sight of tilapia fish is not welcome. When one gets to dine on a whole fish, those little fish (which are cheaper), are no longer delicious.” In keeping with its homey atmosphere Hug offers a salt grilled Nile tilapia ($20) served with vermicelli, fresh vegetables, and sticky rice. It’s called miang pla pow in Thai and I can’t wait to try it.