We always have the same discussion.
Waitress: "How spicy?" Me: "At least medium—maybe medium plus?" Waitress: "This dish is a little sweet." Me: "So what does that suggest?" Waitress: "Whatever you want..." Me: "Well, what does the cook prefer?" And so it goes.
This little dance often happens with a new restaurant; it takes time for me to figure out what the kitchen means by spicy, and it takes time for serving personnel (in this case, it has always been the same waitress), to be confident that I won't send back a dish that has gone over-the-top hot. (Honest; I'm fine with heat, but I don't want it to be gratuitous.) The usual détente is something like this: "OK, make the Panang curry medium, the duck salad medium plus..."
Duck, as it happens, is a Saeb specialty, and that salad, appropriately called "yum" duck, is a stunner. It exhibits all those characteristic Thai tones of sweet/sour/cool /hot; the roasted duck itself is just crisp enough, and the cashew, red onion, cilantro, lettuce and fish sauce all contrive to support it admirably. Duck is not a listed option in dishes such as the Massaman curry; pork, beef, chicken and tofu are the standard additions in this mild (nevertheless ordered medium spicy) dish with coconut milk, potato, carrots and onion. But it can be substituted, and I say go for it. The result is visually spectacular, and the bird turns out to be a natural with the dish's sultry flavors. Duck is entirely at the forefront in a dish such as "flying duck," in which case it's deep fried and served with a vegetable ginger sauce. It wasn't available the one time I asked for it, but that led to a suggested, and entirely duckless, substitute: baked shrimp pot—not a dish I would ever have thought to order.
Worth a repeat, the metal pot is presented piping hot, and the diner is required to stir up the layers of glass noodle, vegetable and succulent shrimp; the "chef's chili sauce" makes this just spicy enough without any additional intervention. Drunken noodles (we ordered pork), on the other hand, can take heightened heat (at least medium plus), and so can the beautiful green curry (here we opted for chicken) with eggplant and bamboo shoots. Thai yakisoba, an egg noodle plate with mixed vegetables and a sesame sauce, was about the only dish that didn't inspire shivers of sybaritic pleasure; maybe it's best just to throw heat at this one and go for masochism instead.
Appetizers such as soft shell crab (tempura style with fried garlic) need nothing more than the sweet chili sauce that comes with them. Same for the Thai dumplings stuffed with a mixture of pork and shrimp and served with a not-too-sweet soy sauce. And though it's fun to add just a little of the table's lethal-looking chili mix to a hot pot of steaming tom yum, try it first without. The shrimp-studded soup (tofu and chicken are other options) is beautifully fragrant with lemon grass, and sometimes it pays to remember that it's harder to be subtle than searing.
Saeb is located in Embassy Oaks off of Perrin Beitel—just across from the new branch of El Bucanero that has been jammed from day one. As appealing as El Buc may be, here's my suggestion: abandon the lines there just once and try this unique Thai. There should be no wait, and the colorful interior is just lively enough in its own right. Service is charming and efficient—just be prepared to defend your desired heat level, promising, if need be, that you won't send anything back for their taking you at your word. As for me, duck noodle soup and flying duck remain to be tasted—heat level to be determined by negotiation.
Saeb Thai & Noodles
226 W Bitters, Ste 124, (210) 545-3354, saebthainoodlesa.com
The Skinny: Classic Thai dishes with an emphasis on duck in many manifestations
Best Bets: Yum duck salad, curries in all colors (duck can be added), baked shrimp pot, Thai dumplings
Hours: 11am-9pm Mon-Thu, 11am-10pm Fri, noon-10pm Sat, noon-8pm Sun
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