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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

EE-Sane’s Taste of Thailand, Laos

Farwell restaurant a top spot for Southeast Asian food

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 You might not guess it based on the sparse setting, but EE-Sane offers some of the best Southeast Asian food in Milwaukee. The small restaurant, which specializes in items from Thailand and Laos, is divided into two sections. A couple of tables and a carryout counter complete the front section, and more dining tables fill the rear dining area. You’ll spot a few sequined wall hangings of elephants, but overall this is a very basic place to dine. Despite its visual simplicity, however, EE-Sane draws plenty of customers—they know this is the place for large servings of tasty, authentic food.

 The extensive menu features the usual noodle dishes and curries with rice, but also offers sections devoted to duck and seafood. The house specials and most interesting items will be found in the Laotian section. Most items come in vegetarian versions as well. The food is spiced on a scale of one to 10, though only the most daring will want to venture beyond seven. Many Thai dishes are quite mild, and items like pad Thai and ginger squid don’t need any amplification at all. The menu doesn’t indicate which items are intended to be spicy, so follow the advice of your server.

 The name EE-Sane refers to the northeast region of Thailand, known as Isan. This region, renowned for having the spiciest food in Thailand, contains a large population of Lao ancestry.

 The house specialties are mostly salads, all prepared with meat. You’ll find two papaya salads. The first is the Thai version, som tom ($7.95). Raw green papaya has a gentle, slightly tart flavor. Here it is prepared with tomato, fish sauce, ground peanuts and dry shrimp. Although this dish is meant to be spicy, it also works as a one on the scale of spiciness. The second papaya salad is a Hmong version ($6.95) that substitutes a sauce of fermented fish and crab for the usual shrimp and fish sauce—resulting in a far more earthy and pungent counterpart.

 Larb, a salad of minced meat—often served raw—is very common in Isan and Laos. The larb sok lak ($9.95) contains beef that is barely cooked, along with red onion, cilantro leaf, mint, rice powder and galangal, a milder cousin of ginger. There is a supply of lettuce leaves with which to wrap the meat. The unforgettable minced beef is silky and smooth in texture.

 The Thai side of the menu extends from soups and appetizers to volcano-style dishes and many curries. All of the major Thai curries, including penang and massaman, are represented here. The meats include choice of chicken, beef, pork or shrimp, and there is tofu for vegetarians.

 EE-Sane also has its own blend of spices in an item aptly named spicy dish ($9.50-$10.95). It includes meat or tofu with onion, eggplant, pea pods and bamboo shoots. Fresh basil adds a licorice-like fragrance. Do not order this mild.

 Seafood soup ($3.95-$10.95) is a mixed seafood tom yum, the hot and tart soup on every Thai menu. This version offers the expected shrimp, tender squid, surimi, cilantro and straw mushrooms. But what are Napa cabbage and broccoli doing here? You’ll also see a dish titled jumping shrimp ($11.95). Usually this is a spicy shrimp salad, and sometimes the shrimp is served raw, but these jumbo shrimp are cooked and served with an abundance of vegetables like broccoli, Napa cabbage, baby corn, carrot, green pepper and onion. The chili sauce is on the milder side.

 As tasty as the entrees can be, try the appetizers as well. The tod mun ($6.50) consists of excellent fish cakes served with a proper cucumber/peanut sauce. Fried egg rolls and fresh spring rolls also make for fine starters.

 Lunch is an even better deal, with large plates of food that come with soup and an egg roll. Singha beer is a standard at Thai restaurants. EE-Sane also offers Beer Lao, which is just as good and brewed near Laos’ capital city, Vientiane. Service is more efficient than friendly, and the atmosphere is minimal, but the real draws are low prices and plenty of food. With that in mind, EE-Sane remains one of the best local picks for Southeast Asian food.

 EE-Sane 1806 N. Farwell Ave., (414) 224-8284, $-$$, Credit Cards: All major, Smoking: Yes, Handicap Access: Yes

Photo by Tate Bunker