[San Francisco, Tenderloin] Esan Classic

As mentioned by @Souperman in the Thai Tenderloin Takeover thread, Esan Classic, an Isaan/Northeastern Thai themed restaurant from the Lers Ros folks, has opened. It’s on Larkin near O’Farrell, almost across the street from the original Lers Ros.

I had a lunch here. I’m pretty much clueless about Isaan cuisine, so I asked my waitress to recommend something typically Northern, and she suggested the #16, prik khing pla dook fu, which is described on the menu as stir-fried crispy catfish with chili paste and kefir leaves. She also suggested two dishes off the salads section of menu, which I think were the #25 ( grilled meat salad) and the #26 (pork liver salad). I went for the prik khing pla dook fu ($18.95), with a side of rice ($2.00).

I was expecting some fried chunks of catfish, but this was more like bits of finely minced catfish, spiced with curry paste and fried until very crispy with a little batter. It was quite good. Crunchy and crispy, with good curry flavor and a good hit of I think lemongrass. Or maybe kefir lime. There were a few slices of red bell pepper in there as well. The batter was quite airy - some of the larger chunks had the texture of a fried crouton. It was fried well, not excessively greasy. It also had a little heat, but not that much. This plus the side of rice was a good sized meal for one. I probably could have added a vegetable dish or something to mix it up a bit as I think I had a little taste fatigue near the end of the meal.



While I don’t know this dish specifically, I thought Esan cuisine in general is quite spicy. It’d be good to know if this dish is just not that hot, here or elsewhere, or if they tone the whole heat level down for SF.

I have only had pla duk fu (fluffy shredded catfish) as a salad before, as described here:

where the fish is cooked and flaked, then fried so it puffs up a bit. The prik khing nature of this dish means it is stir fried in a chili paste, perhaps dampening some of the fluffiness, and without salad ingredients adding acidity and texture differences it sounds like a less tempting dish.

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Interesting, thanks for the link. Interesting to see that in that recipe there is actually no batter used and it’s all catfish. Seems like a bit of work to make. The dish from Esan Classic looked a lot like the pictures in your link, but was more crunchy than fluffy.

Josh Sen’s and Sarah Fritsche’s reviews of Esan Classic, both this week:

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Had dinner there last night with the SO. Ordered:

  1. Tom Yum Fish Head Soup.
    Super tasty with a creep-up-on-you spiciness (level: medium). Lots of lovely gelatinous bits and a generous amount of meat. Beautiful sour flavor.
  2. Papaya Salad with Salted Duck Egg
    Good, but probably would have been better with grilled shrimp instead of the salted duck egg, as the salty fattiness of the duck egg seemed to dull the brightness of the dressing.
  3. Pork shoulder salad
    Great - the meat had a nice springy texture and the dressing (fish sauce/chili/lime/cilantro/etc.) complemented the slightly sweet meat nicely. Served with cabbage leaves (I used them to wrap the meat and dull the spice a bit).
  4. Fried Catfish Salad
    Neat, especially the texture, though I think I should have gotten #16 instead.
  5. Pad Kee Mao
    Excellent flavoring but the noodles were a bit overcooked and didn’t have much wok hei. Probably wouldn’t order again, mostly because of the enormous variety of other dishes I want to try.

We ordered all dishes at medium spice and that was sufficient. By the end of the meal we were sweating but not in pain (AKA sweet spot).

Would I go back? Yes, ASAP. Next time we will probably stick to the first few pages of the menu (esan classics, salads, soups, starters), though the fried rice looked pretty damn good.

Also, the whole fish dishes looked incredible.

Too hungry – no pics.


We went during Saturday lunch. We also don’t know much about Isaan food and asked for recommendations. Sweetness seemed to be a recurring theme. Probably need to try the other dishes.

Papaya salad with fermented fish paste. I would have liked it more if the funk was much stronger. This version was pure heat that covered most of the mellow funk.

Tom sabb nuer peuay, beef stewed chili powder soup. Heat from the chili powder, and tanginess and sweetness from the galangal and more. The flavors should dance but somehow the balance seemed off with the sweetness more pronounced than preferred.

Hor mok phing, fish custard. Sliced rock fish with chili paste that was quite heavy with sweetness of the coconut milk and the basil. The coconut was directly worked into the fish mixture so the dish seemed more desert-y than savory.

Also got the pad thai for the kids. Very sweet. Unremarkable like the pad thai at Lers Ros. But hey one is not supposed to order this anyway when more interesting choices are available.

Empty dining room until towards the end a family came in. Not sure why its so empty. Is it more of a late night joint?

Funny, we almost went to Mong Thu, @Mr_Happy.

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Most of Isan (Esan) is culturally and ethnically Lao, including its food. That this food can be labelled “Northern Thai” is really a bit much, and is mostly the result of 2 things: The racism against Lao identity in Thai society that discourages Isan people from identifying as Lao, and a desire not to brand food for American diners as something unfamiliar.

Kudos to Lao Table for not falling into this. The same cannot be said for Esan Classic.

The population of the provinces that make up Isaan in Thailand is almost 3x the population of the entire Lao PDR. Doesn’t seem hard to me to understand why Tom Silargorn (who grew up in Chonburi) wouldn’t necessarily go out of his way to make a point about pan-Lao nationalism in the name.

You seem to be under 3 misapprehensions.

  1. That this has anything to do with with the name. It doesn’t. It has to do with the labeling of the restaurant as ‘Northern Thai Food.’

  2. That ethnicity or culture have anything to do with what percentage of the population of that ethnicity or culture is under what political administration. Should Tibetan food be labeled ‘Northern Chinese Food?’ Should Kurdish food be labeled as ‘Turkish food?’ And any desire by Kurds to see their (distinctive) food labeled as ‘Kurdish’ be summarily dismissed?

  3. That any sort of advocacy for correct labeling, or that doesn’t pander to western tastes, can be derided as fictional “Pan-Lao Nationalism,” (or "Pan-Tibetan’ or "Pan-Kurdish Nationalism). Presumably because in your mind (or to your taste) the cuisines of these places are similar enough that they can be interchangeably named.

Well, people on the esoteric forums like this aim for accuracy. Elsewhere people aim to make money or don’t care. Otherwise there won’t be such things as Mongolian BBQ.

And since Silargorn is not from the Isaan region, he’s not going to have the same motivation as an Isaan chef to label the food in a way that an Isaan chef would see fit.

I don’t know much about Isaan, though it seems like its not as uniformly-Lao as suggested. From Wikipedia:

'The majority Isan-speaking population of the region distinguish themselves not only from the Lao of Laos but also from the central Thai by calling themselves khon Isan or Thai Isan in general. However, some refer to themselves as simply Lao, and academics have recently been referring to them as Lao Isan[2] or as Thai Lao, with the main issue with self-identification as Lao being stigma associated with the Lao identity within Thai society.[3]
The Khmer-speaking minority and the Kuy people (“Soui”), who live in the south of Isan, speak Austroasiatic languages and follow customs more similar to those of Cambodia than to those of the Thai and Lao, who are Tai peoples.[4]’

I think Esan/Issan Thai is fair enough as a descriptor. Most sophisticated diners will have an idea of what that represents. Just don’t pull rank claim it as “Thai” food.

It’s complicated.

We don’t call Tibetan food Chinese food but we do Yunnan food, even when it’s the creation of a different “nationality.”

Cuisine is like language; someone once said a language is a dialect with borders. The same is true of cuisines. What distinguishes Indian food from Pakistani? Tibetan food from Bhutanese? And don’t get me started on Burmese!

All good cuisines are blends, particularly those of SE Asia, with its gerrymandered borders, influenced by their neighbors.

And when are the Hakka going to get credit for their far-ranging influences?

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  1. Nobody in charge of the restaurant has labeled the restaurant as “Northern Thai Food”, so it’s you who is misinformed, not I. The restaurant’s website never uses this phrase and as far as I can tell neither do any of the scans of their menus.

  2. As Gary and sck point out here, this is at best a bad oversimplification.

  3. Are there meaningful-sized groups of actual, living, breathing Lao people/khon Isaan who are angry enough at Thaification to feel further marginalized by referring to their cuisine by the name of the region where 80+% of them grew up rather than the ethnic demonym that they (er, only some of them, and possibly nowhere approaching a majority of them) prefer to call themselves? No? Then this complaint is laughably patronizing toward them and obnoxious.

So what’s the bigwheel042 quota that’s require for a group to be permitted, without dismissal and derision to state a preference that its food be accurately labeled? (And by the way, you keep repeating that I have a complaint about the name of the restaurant, which I don’t. But the Website says it’s Thai food).

Do you know anything about Isan or Laos or their people beyond what you’ve read in a Wikipedia article? Have you been to Isan? Have you spoken to a single person there about these matters, since you speak with such assurance on their behalf? I think we know the answer, right?

Read this, it might help you understand:


LMAO, hilarious. I have been to Udon Thani, Nong Khai, and the Lao PDR. I have munched on kaiphan in Luang Prabang, eaten dill-laden pho for breakfast with locals, and had tom mak hoong from a woman who dumped the foulest-looking padaek into it out of a dusty plastic jug at the Udomxay bus depot. I have met and had fairly extensive conversations about Thailand and its politics with a proud grandfather from Nong Khai while both of us were in Bangkok. I have yet to meet someone from the Northeast who makes a big to-do that they do not want to be called Thai. Every interaction I can remember with them used the term “Isaan” as a self-identifier.

Is that enough cred for you, Guy With A Weird White Savior Complex?

Virtually all of the “Lao” people featured in the Express article are ethnic Mienh, Lu, Hmong, and Lao people whose origins are in the Lao PDR. (James Syhabout was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, suggesting his parents are from the Lao PDR.) Other than mentioning the very real discrimination in Thailand against people from the Northeast, the piece says very little about what most actual northeasterners want to be called and how they see themselves and their cooking.

What Esan Classic serves IS Thai food, in the same way that what Old Mandarin serves is Chinese food, what Mi Yucatan serves is Mexican food, and what, say, Buttermilk serves is American food.

Syhabout has one perspective on what to call the food he cooks at Hawker Fare. Tsai’s Express piece notes that he went through a number of iterations of what to call it before settling on “Lao Isaan”. That is great! His way is right. That doesn’t in and of itself make others’ preferred nomenclature wrong. Your attempts at policing that terminology instead of letting these people speak for themselves are gross and weird.

What’s “gross and weird” is someone, whose entire case amounts to “I haven’t heard that,” is apparently unable to have a discussion without resorting to a series of nasty personal attacks (& racial assumptions). Not interested in talking to you any longer. Have a nice day.

Ahahahah that’s a pretty adorable deflection. Now the goalposts have moved from “I know things, while you must have no experience with Lao people at all, you clueless farang” to “Your experiences are meaningless and I will only listen to your point of view if you present scholarly rigorous fieldwork on Isaan identity.” Charming.

A tiny bit of looking into how people from this region think about themselves would show that that thinking is often very complicated, e.g.: http://laomate.activeboard.com/t36899966/new-lao-isan-website/

Did you read through the link you posted? I presume you will now agree with me and retract your comment that there are no meaningful-sized groups of actual, living, breathing Lao people/khon Isaan who are angry at Thaification. Not to mention the insults that accompanied it.

Yeah, that’s not what I said. I never said people in Isaan weren’t angry at Thaification.

I said that there didn’t appear to be meaningful-sized groups of people from Isaan who were so angry at Thaification that they are offended by the term “Thai” as an identifier and demand that it not be applied to the products of their culture, such as their cuisine. Which is the very thing that you have been demanding in this thread.

And yet such people appear in the link you have posted.