Thailand is known for its curries, noodle dishes and salads. Yet some of the best Thai dishes in the city happen to be prepared in unlikely places, according to NBC 5's Food Guy Steve Dolinsky.
One of the best places to try a country’s cuisine is either from a kitchen within a grocery store, or in a tiny, personal restaurant reflecting the owner’s upbringing. For those who love Thai food, there are several places now offering these gateways to authenticity.
Continuing his way through Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Dolinsky stopped by a restaurant in Edgewater.
With the imported ingredients, dried fish and the uncompromising prepared food selection, it’s no surprise who tends to frequent the Talard Thai Asian Market in Edgewater.
Feeling out of the loop? We'll catch you up on the Chicago news you need to know. Sign up for the weekly Chicago Catch-Up newsletter here.
“Mostly Thai people,” said owner Simon Atapan.
But a visit to the market requires no cooking skill, just a love for Thai food. There’s papaya salad, ready-to-eat; an assortment of desserts from local Thai restaurants, and in back, past the coconut milk display and behind the frozen food, a hot food bar stocked with homemade dishes reminiscent of trips to Bangkok and just two tables to eat them at.
“We have the most authentic taste, I’m proud to say it because the ingredients that we use we imported straight from Thailand. Curry paste…” Atapan said.
Used in several dishes, typically the curry is cooked first, then combined with crisp green beans and stir-fried with pork belly and a shower of aromatic lime leaves. Curry also appears with pork in Hung Lay, a special from northern Thailand. On weekends, they have Thai women prepare even more specials.
“Khao Kriab Pak Moh that we’re serving now, it’s a Thai crepe that has peanuts, sweet turnip and pork filling,” he said.
Typically made on the streets of Bangkok, the delicate snack is rarely found in Chicago. Be sure to try some prik nam pla, the beloved condiment of Thai chilies soaked in fish sauce. Just skim a bit and add to curries for a salty-hot punch, then finish off with fresh mango and sweet, sticky rice perfumed with coconut milk.
“It’s like you don’t have to fly to Thailand to see the Thai crowd here," Atapan said.
Two miles away in Ravenswood, Aroy Thai also attracts diners looking for something more than satay skewers and pad thai.
“You have to make something unique, something authentic, then people will come to you,” said owner Sutee Kowcharoen.
Sutee’s mom – Suchai – runs the kitchen, presiding over a special “Thai only” menu but also steering diners to some unfamiliar flavors, like sai ua, the classic, spicy sausage, served with fresh peanuts, ginger and sticky rice.
“Unbelievable, people love spicy,” he said.
They also love larb, a salad featuring ground beef, pork, or in this case, chicken, seasoned with fish sauce and lime juice, plus some dried red chili and a spoonful of homemade toasted rice powder. Red onions add color and crunch. Sutee says his customers have been getting savvier over the past 19 years.
“People know how to eat Thai food more; they know what to eat, they come here, they see it and they go boom, boom, boom – one, two, three and that’s it,” said Kowcharoen.
Here's where you can go to taste Thai cuisine:
5353 N. Broadway
4654 N. Damen Ave.
1011 W. Irving Park Rd.
4641 N. Broadway
4825 N. Western Ave.
7742 N. Milwaukee Ave., Niles