Zaap Lai occupies a shoebox-sized storefront that previously housed another Asian restaurant. There is seating for thirty six patrons in a dining area smaller than half a tennis court. Inside you’ll find a cashier/take-out station just inside the front door. Tables, chairs and booths are sturdy and workmanlike, complementing a minimal décor that is pleasant and attractive. Rest rooms can be found at the rear of the dining area. We found Zaap Lai’s table service competent, though it can be a bit rushed: our server Rachel was the only one running front-of-house when we showed up at suppertime.
For openers, I suggested we sample some of Zaap Lai’s appetizer offerings. My dining partner chose Zaap Lai’s egg rolls ($3.50 for two). The Dieter picked the vegetable tempura ($5.50) while the Carnivore opted for an order of Crab Rangoon ($5 for five pieces). Rachel had our appetizers on the table inside of ten minutes. I particularly liked Zapp Lai’s take on egg rolls; thin rice wrappers surround minced Asian vegetables, and fried until crispy and delicious. The Crab Rangoon were good, if not especially noteworthy. Though we agreed there could have been more variety in the vegetable tempura, we had no complaints.
Pad Sieew with shrimp
My dining partner said I could experiment with the Laotian side of the menu if I wanted to, but that she’d decided to stick with something familiar, and ordered her favorite Thai dish, that being Pad Sieew with shrimp, ($10.50). Here, wide Thai noodles, egg, broccoli, carrots and Chinese broccoli are stir-fried in Zaap Lai’s proprietary Thai brown sauce, mildly spicy with a brief lingering heat, pleasing my dining partner very much.
Thai fried rice with seafood
The Carnivore wanted the Thai fried rice, with the seafood combo as his protein choice ($14.50). Zaap Lai takes a mixture of shrimp, scallops, mussels and chopped squid, ten adds a savory mixture of Thai fried rice, broccoli of both Chinese and Southern USA origin, diced tomato, coarsely chopped onion and green onion, then finishing with a lightly scrambled egg for additional texture and succulence, all blended with the proprietary Zaap Lai house sauce again, this time with some extra spice heat to properly awaken the Carnivore’s palate. After his third forkful, my friend was happy indeed.
Pad Cashew Nut with shrimp
The Dieter was also in a mood for seafood, choosing the mild version of Zaap Lai’s Thai stir fry entrees, Pad Cashew Nut with shrimp, ($12.95). Here, a goodly quantity of Zaap Lai’s delicious shrimp are stir-fired with a mixture of chopped onion, green bell pepper, chopped carrot and then topped with chopped roasted cashew nuts. Steamed rather than fried rice is sided here. Rachel said that Zaap Lai’s kitchen could make the spiciness of her entree to our friend’s satisfaction, which it was.
Laab (pronounced “Lahb” or “Larb”, $10.50) is considered to be the national dish of Laos. This is a meat-based salad of finely-minced beef, chicken or, in my case, pork. The meat is poached in its broth to which has been added twenty or so ingredients such as cardamom, thin-sliced lime leaves, ground nutmeg and lemongrass that make up the dish’s spice mélange. My Laab was then mixed with some assorted minced vegetables, some coarsely ground and toasted rice powder and sided with a personal-sized serving of the Lao sticky rice; this last is to be eaten with the fingers. They also had a small wedge of iceberg lettuce provided for use as lettuce wraps. The taste of pork Laab takes some getting used to, as does the crunch of the toasted rice. There are many spices and flavors in this dish; because of this, you may experience a brief sensory overload, as I did. Slow down, take smaller forkfuls and linger over each one. Truly, dining on a plate of Laab will give your taste buds quite an enjoyable workout.
Zaap Lai Thai & Laotian Cuisine is a welcome addition to the restaurant scene in north Johnson City. Sue, Rachel and the rest of team have a winner here, one that deserves your attention and business. As for the dine-around bunch and myself, we several more visits to Zaap Lai in our datebook. Maybe my friends and I will see you there.
Zaap Lai Thai & Laotian Cuisine
2244 North Roan Street
Mon-Fri 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Sat 12 noon – 9 p.m.
Sun 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Available on Facebook & social media
Credit cards accepted