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August 09, 2006

Thai Infidelity

Dominic Armato
This is a post I've been dreading for some time. It's not that Spoon Thai and TAC Quick aren't great... they're fabulous. It's just that... well... this is going to take some explaining.

When I first had Thai, I was about nine or ten years old. This was before Chicago's massive Thai explosion that put approximately 23 Thai restaurants on every block. At this particular point in time, when my folks told friends we were going out for Thai food, 97% of them would respond, "Oh... you mean from Taiwan?" Anyway, the point is that I've been going to P.S. Bangkok for a really, really long time. I adore P.S. Bangkok. I practically grew up in the place. Sue, the proprietor and chef, is an old friend, a sweetheart of the highest degree, and one of those restaurant owners who treats her customers like her family. A good 20-30% of my major life events have been celebrated with a dinner at P.S. Bangkok. I've introduced countless hordes of people to the place. It's the only restaurant in the world for which I'd weep bitter tears if it ever closed down.

Suffice it to say that I have a little bit of a guilt complex when it comes to eating at any other Thai restaurant.

Dominic Armato
Anyway, I'm completely unable to judge P.S. Bangkok in any kind of objective manner whatsoever. But that said, I love the steamed dumplings. I crave the crispy pad see ewe. And I'll stack Sue's green curry up against anybody's. Sue seems to do her own thing. She doesn't do the typical Americanized Thai, but she obviously isn't doing what the places favored by the hardcore Thai fans are doing, either. I'm certainly no expert on what is or isn't traditional Thai, I just know there are dishes... great ones... I get at P.S. Bangkok that I can't get anywhere else. All the same, while my sense of loyalty is perhaps overly strong, in the interest of broadening my horizons I've started adding some other Thai joints to the rotation over the past ten years. For a while, I limited this exploration to hitting Sanamluang while I was living in Los Angeles, or dropping into Lotus of Siam whenever I visited Vegas. Being in another city somehow made it okay. But while I've known for the past few years that there were a few Thai restaurants in Chicago that I really, really had to get to, I needed a good nudge to get me to branch out. Recently, that nudge finally came.

Dominic Armato
Over the past few weeks I've had the good fortune to befriend Erik M., the fine fellow who runs silapaahaan.com, which is devoted to Thai food in Chicago. He's put together a rather fine collection of photos, but more importantly, he's translated the traditional Thai menus for six of his favorite establishments, thereby putting the non-Americanized dishes within reach for traditional Thai noobs. He was kind enough to invite me along for a couple of group excursions to two of his favorite joints, featuring not only dishes from the "secret" Thai menus, but also a number of specially requested items that weren't even on the menus... and really, how do you turn down an invitation like that?

Dominic Armato
You don't, of course, and I didn't, and I was treated to two absolutely fantastic meals. Both TAC Quick and Spoon Thai are casual, inexpensive little joints that serve up what I'm informed by reliable sources is beautifully prepared authentic Thai cuisine. From Sanamluang and Lotus of Siam, I'd had a hint of the sorts of dishes that awaited me, and these didn't disappoint. Of course, the appeal of Thai is that when you're describing it, you can't go overboard with the bold adjectives. It's fresh, explosive cuisine that smacks you around a little, and I was smacked around plenty. Both were epic feasts, and a lot to digest all at once... both literally and figuratively. Again, I'm far from being a Thai expert, but amidst the sensory overload, there were a few dishes that stood out as favorites.

Dominic Armato
At both restaurants, we had kài thâwt, fried chicken that was heavily marinated, fried crisp on the outside but juicy on the inside, and served with a tamarind dipping sauce. I've often joked that it takes a lot to get me excited about chicken, but this was some exciting chicken. Though both were delicious, Spoon Thai's version was really something special, and it's pictured at the top of the page. Moving down the page is one of two fantastic soups we had at TAC Quick, tôm sâep, an Issan-style soup with little bits of beef offal. It was extremely tart and a little spicy, but what impressed me was that it packed a wallop without sacrificing subtlety. As potent as the flavors were, they were balanced and rounded, and the broth remained extremely light and refreshing. As for the offal, I have no idea what bits I was eating, but they were tasty.

Dominic Armato
The next one down is a dish that brought back memories of China. Spoon's phàk bûng fai daeng, aka water spinach with fermented yellow bean sauce, was indicative of the kind of greens that are so hard to find in the States. The water spinach had an intense green flavor, but was still fresh, light and crispy. Whenever somebody mentions, in stereotypical fashion, that kids don't like greens, I think to myself that it's only because they don't get greens like this. Below the water spinach is Spoon's néua tàet dìaw, frequently referred to as a Thai-style beef jerky, though that's grossly misleading. They're both made from cow, and are dry, but the similarities end there. This dish is somehow marinated and dry fried, resulting in intensely flavored bits of beef that are crispy on the outside and pleasantly dry and chewy through and through, but still fresh.

Dominic Armato
The next dish down is Spoon's yam hèt khẽm thawng, a typically Thai sweet, sour and spicy salad made primarily of enoki mushrooms and topped with a sprinkling of rice powder. As Thai salads go, the mushrooms were new to me, and they made for a really nice textural change of pace. The next one down is TAC Quick's náam phrík kà-pì plaa thuu. This is another dish we had at both restaurants, but here I preferred TAC's version. It's grilled mackerel, egg crepes and assorted crudites, served with a gnarly, spicy dip made with fermented shrimp. It was a huge winner for me, perhaps because the fermented shrimp reminded me of the Italian anchovy concoctions that I've come to love so dearly. It was spicy, fermented and sour, very complex and potent. I loved it.

Dominic Armato
Next up, immediately above, is Spoon's kûng châe náam plaa, a shrimp dish that was billed as marinated in a ceviche-esque manner, but which seemed pretty raw to me. To be clear, I'm not complaining. I adore raw shrimp. And here they were dressed in a sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce, raw garlic and a small army of chiles. If raw shrimp doesn't do it for you, this dish probably won't. But keep trying... it'll be worth it at some point, I promise. On the left, you see one of the raunchiest dishes I've ever tasted, and I mean that in a good way. TAC's kũay tĩaw reua is a noodle soup that's so complex, I don't even know how to begin describing it. There were about 62 different things going on, all of them incredibly potent. It had a deep, dark intensity that immediately brought liver to mind, though I have no idea if any liver was involved in its composition. In typical Thai fashion, however, it was simultaneously punched up with very bright herbal and vinegary accents. I wish I could speak about this one more intelligently, because there's a lot to dissect, but I was mostly busy being blown away. I'm informed that it's finished with a bit of pork blood which, if true, explains a lot. This is an intense dish, and I loved it... though I'm not sure I could eat more than a small bowlful in one sitting.

Dominic Armato
Finally, here you see Spoon's plaa sôm. This one isn't actually on the menu, so I'm going to show it here just to torture you. Unquestionably, one of the best dishes of the lot. Its preparation is something that I find fascinating, but I can see how some might find it... disturbing. The fish is crisply fried and served with a spicy, tart dipping sauce, but most impressive is the fact that there's a wonderful sour flavor that completely permeates the flesh. This is achieved by gutting the whole fish, stuffing it with rice, and allowing the rice to ferment inside the fish for a few days. There are those who are disturbed by anything that is intentionally left to get a little funky, but bear in mind that fish sauce... arguably the cornerstone of both Thai and Vietnamese cuisine... is most commonly made by putting salted fish in earthenware jars in the sun for about a year. If you ever have the opportunity to try this one and find yourself recoiling, just get over it. It's in your own best interests.

In the end, what I've learned is that while nothing could ever take me away from my old haunt, I have some exploring to do and I'm excited to do it. Even if I wanted to compare the Thai I grew up on with this, I wouldn't know how to start. There's surprisingly little overlap. I'll have to content myself to consider them two completely different beasts, both of which I love. If I'm right, I'm right. If I'm deluding myself, well... do me a favor and don't ruin it for me. The mind has funny ways of coping with uncomfortable scenarios, and I'd just as soon let mine do its thing.

I'm only sort of joking.


Great report. I am very happy that you joined me. Now, if I can ask one teeny, tiny favour in return: would you be willing to take me to P.S. Bangkok sometime? Seriously. I am willing to play completely dumb if you like. ;)


Waaaaay ahead of ya, Erik... you're totally getting an invite to the next outing :-)

Loved the photos and the reports. I'm sending this along to my pals at Lotus of Siam. I printed out your photos of the TAC dinner for them, along with the description. Saipin, the chef, could identify everything from the photos, and was excitedly talking about them in Thai.

Bill, the co-owner of LOS, was also very happy about your written and my oral description of the meals in Chicago. He thinks it's a great idea to raise expectations for Thai food.

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