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December 12, 2011

Aroy Thai

Shrimp and Peanut Dumplings Dominic Armato

Though the timing might suggest otherwise, it hadn't been my intention to make this into a Thai throwdown. But early last week, I'm looking at my list of restaurants I'm ready to write about, and suddenly Soi 4 and Aroy Thai are all that's left... Phoenix' newfound media darling and an old but recently rediscovered warhorse of the Chicago food nerds. I ate at both within a month of each other. Heck, one of the friends I took to Soi 4 in Phoenix happened to be in Chicago the weekend I was going to Aroy (and perhaps he'll be so good as to share his thoughts as well). I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wasn't looking for an object lesson in downscale traditional vs. fancified creative fare, but one found me, and it brought some things into focus.

Tod MunDominic Armato

I was first introduced to Aroy a little over five years ago, under the wing of the inimitable Erik M., whose now legendary exploits include producing the menu translations that mainstreamed traditional Thai in Chicago, and turning Jonathan Gold onto Jitlada in Los Angeles (though his pictures are, sadly, long gone, his first post about the restaurant is both inspiring and heartbreaking). If you're looking for proof that one passionate (read: obsessive) individual with tastebuds and a keyboard can have a profound impact on the dining scene of a major city, Erik's it. Though his disappearance from the intertubes about three years ago has only served to heighten his mystique (yes, this is tongue-in-cheek, and yes, he's fine... just not writing), the point... well, I'm not really sure what the point is here except that -- if I may gush -- he's someone from whom I draw a great deal of inspiration, and our dinner at Aroy was one of a series of eye-openers for me where Thai is concerned. And yet, once Erik had left Chicago, Aroy sort of slipped into the shadows of places like Spoon, TAC and Sticky Rice, only to recently (and rightfully) regain favor among the chow geeks as one of the best spots in Chicago for Thai food. I -- along with nearly a dozen compatriots -- was long overdue for a return visit.

Isaan and Sai Ua SausageDominic Armato

I'd had the foresight to keep Erik's message that detailed the menu for our 2006 meal, and between that and LTH postings on recent favorites, both on and off menu, we cribbed together a meal that was just shy of mindblowing, particularly for somebody who's been desperately craving this food. The first taste was an off-menu item, arranged a couple days ahead of time. Small golf ball-sized dumplings, with thick wrappers of glutinous rice, were filled with a lightly sweet ground concoction that featured shrimp and peanuts most prominently, served on small leaves of lettuce with which to pick up and eat them. Lightly chewy and full-flavored, they were a delightful start. The Tod Mun were another off-menu item, offered to us though I didn't request them early, I suspect because we named a couple of other off-menu items. They were, as one might find them elsewhere, made of minced fish pounded into a paste, seasoned with red curry, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves, fried and served with a sweet and sour cucumber relish. Where they differed were in the potency of the curry, the very forward fragrance of the kaffir lime leaf, and the light, spongy texture -- far from the leaden lumps tod mun often are.

Larb KhunDominic Armato

I'd long pined for Aroy's Isaan sausage, but this time it came with a partner, Sai Ua, another from the northern part of the country, bordering on Laos. The Isaan sausage was the subtler of the two, a pork sausage mixed with glutinous rice before being stuffed into the casing, so that when hung to age the rice ferments and takes on a gentle sourness. The Sai Ua was its fiery counterpart, a coarser grind with more pronounced bits of fat, laden with chiles and ginger, aromatic and quite hot. Both sausages were served with diced raw ginger, peanuts and minced chiles to eat along with sticky rice, both arrived with crisp, blistered skin, and both served as an excellent reminder of how careful grinding and stuffing can take a very good sausage and make it excellent. The texture on these was fabulous, fully-formed but gently yielding into an even grind when eaten. They weren't rocket science, but they were fabulously executed.

Roasted Eggplant with Shrimp and MintDominic Armato

Larb is common enough, but Aroy's larb khun is something special. It possesses those screaming highs of lime juice, cilantro and onions, but it plumbs some unusually murky depths by working in a fair amount of offal. To be clear, this dish isn't an aggressive expression of variety meat, nor is it entirely or even mostly composed of such. Rather there's a mellow but pronounced funky depth that brings an unusual roundness and complexity to a familiar archetype, and it seduced even some at the table who were highly suspicious of offal. The key's in the balance, and this was a remarkable balancing act of light and fresh against dark and dirty. A superb salad the likes of which I've not previously tasted. The roasted eggplant, a special recommended to us, was a little less challenging in terms of flavor, but far more challenging in terms of heat. The roasted eggplant had a silky smoothness, paired with shrimp, brightened with mint and further mellowed by the rich yolks of sliced hard-cooked eggs. But it set us on fire. I can't remember the last time a dish blew me out to that degree, and it took me a while to regain my bearings. Still, the flavor was excellent, and I'm not sure I'd order it any differently if given the chance.

Tom Yam Beef Ball & Tender SoupDominic Armato

And then, the tom yum. Oh my, what a dish. Aroy does the Tom Yum Goong that's present on every Americanized Thai menu everywhere. Though I don't know, I wager Aroy's version is a little more notable. But buried deep in the soup section is a beef-based tom yam that features both firm meatballs and chunks of tender, braised beef. As I ladled this out and we passed bowls around the table, it slowly grew silent but for one voice at the other end that exclaimed, "I've never had tom yum soup before today." He had, of course. Many times. Which was exactly the point. This was a true eye-opener of a dish, with an incredible depth and complexity that made nearly every tom yum I'd tried before it seem insipid in comparison. It was both full-flavored and explosive, fiery hot, bracingly sour, pleasantly sweet and with just enough briny essence to bring it together. It was a flavor blitzkrieg, both sour and beefy, composed of flavors that would have been completely overpowering if they were not in such wonderful harmony. When I put together the Deliciousness of 2011 in a few weeks, this is the one that doesn't require a moment's thought. I adored it.

Grilled Pork SaladDominic Armato

It's a little tough to come down from a dish like that, but the grilled pork salad was no slouch. It was very larb-like in flavor, fish sauce and lime juice and sugar along with onions and cilantro, some toasted rice powder for texture. But the meat's coming from a different realm here. A different realm on the pig itself, that is. The cut used in the grilled pork salad is pork neck. There appears to be some terminology confusion surrounding the term "pork neck," and I'm unsure precisely which part of the pig we're dealing with in Aroy's case. But I will say that it was a well-muscled cut that still contained quite a bit of fat where it was at, and the two combined to give it a really rich, intense flavor and a kind of pleasantly chewy texture. I've had it simply grilled at Thai restaurants on many an occasion with a dipping sauce, but I think this is the first time I've had it in a salad treatment, and predictably, it works well. A little smokiness complements the dressing well, the acidity therein plays against the richness of the meat. And the genius was that the slight chewiness of this cut of meat forces you to kind of linger over it for a little bit, as some of the fat oozes out and mixes with the dressing. I trust this is no accident.

Somtam PuDominic Armato

A few weeks after Soi 4's clinical somtam left me cold, I got what I'd been seeking. The distance between the two isn't that great, but a tweak here, a tweak there, and it's a much more vibrant dish. For starters, it's a little less sweet. The sugar's still pronounced, no doubt, but it isn't so much to the fore. While personal preference causes me to wish it went even a little further, Aroy's was lightly crushed, to as to aid the papaya in soaking up the sauce, unlike so many lame versions I've had that feature flawless (and tasteless) strands of green papaya sitting in a pool of dressing that they can't absorb. The spice was kicked up... not quite to Thai Thai levels (coming from me, that would have merited a special request, though we told them not to be afraid to bring the heat and they did at times), but enough to really punch you in the face rather than providing a meek chile buzz in the background. And my favorite part, the pieces of pickled blue crab, releasing their briny essence as they're pounded along with the salad. This isn't difficult... why, I always wonder, is it so hard to find it done this way?

Basil DuckChinese Broccoli with Crispy PorkDominic Armato

There were weak points, though only in relative fashion. The basil duck wasn't what I thought I was ordering. I had tried a dish with Erik years before that involved a huge pile of crispy fried holy basil leaves, and that's definitely not what this was. Which isn't to say that this duck, crisply fried in a dark, lightly sweet sauce with an abundance of basil wasn't bad, it just felt somehow more conventional alongside the rest. And the Chinese broccoli, studded with chunks of crispy pork, was a leg up on the throwaway veg of so many places, but felt a touch overdone and a little muddy to me.

Catfish with Thai EggplantDominic Armato

The catfish with Thai Eggplant was a great example of why it's so frustrating that coconut curries dominate the Americanized Thai scene. Here's a curry that isn't creamy or heavy, but wonderfully light and fragrant. This isn't to say that it doesn't pack a punch. It's still hot and devilishly complex. But instead of being about coconut and sugar, it's about the complexity of the herbs and lemongrass in an almost gravy-like concoction that lets their subtler flavors come through. And the plucky star of the show was a bunch of pickled green peppercorns, both spicy and piquant, putting the exclamation point on the dish. Another non-coconut curry we sampled was the Phat Phet Fish Balls, and setting the virtues of the fiery but beautifully balanced red curry aside, it got me frustrated that more places don't serve fish balls, essentially fish dumplings blended with starch and seasonings and then cooked to create a sort of spongy, gently flavored chunk of fish. I dug this dish as well.

Phat Phet Fish BallsDominic Armato

It sounds, from my contemporaries' reports, as though our Chou-Chi Ground Pork wasn't firing on all cylinders. After reading so much about the delicate lattice of fried egg whites and the gush of a barely-cooked yolk, I was a little disappointed that our egg was cooked through. Especially since so many have claimed that that's what makes the dish. But if I hadn't have known, I wouldn't have missed it. I've seen this dish jokingly referred to as Thai Bolognese, and it's not an entirely ridiculous analogy. It has a sort of warm, stewy feel to it, though obviously the flavors are coming from a completely different place. It's kind of like the comfort food of curries, for those who want something sweet and peanutty and not have to be bothered with chewing to get it. And yet, though this was the sweetest, creamiest dish of the night, it still never crossed into the cloying territory of conventional Americanized Thai curries. It pushed right to the edge of going to far, and then held there, sweet and creamy but still complex and well-developed.

Chou-Chi Ground PorkDominic Armato

I don't know what to think. When I write about this meal, I'm simultaneously thrilled and frustrated. I'm thrilled because food like this exists, because such bold flavors can be so well-balanced and developed, because such fabulous cuisine comes out of a cheap and spartan storefront under the El tracks in Chicago rather than a half a million dollar buildout in a Scottsdale megacomplex (I have no idea what the renovation actually cost). Couldn't that money have gone towards finding and hiring somebody who knows how to make this food instead? It sure would have made for a better restaurant. And thus, the frustration sets in. Some of Soi 4's dishes can be really quite good, but the gap between what these two places turn out in terms of flavor, complexity and maturity is enormous. And it's especially amazing given the resources that have been thrown at the former. It makes it hard not to be cynical about places that sink so much money, thought and energy into the vibe. I know, they're in different cities, why even bring this up? I'm not sure. Like I say, it wasn't my intention. But it's hard to go to two places like this almost back-to-back and NOT examine how what seems like a very different focus can produce such different results. And it isn't entirely fair to frame it like that. Both cities are chock full of spartan little Thai places that serve awful food. I don't mean to take the pretentious food nerd tack that the best food can only be found at obscure dives. That simply isn't true. But the question of focus is a valid one, I think. And even more important, another question remains... is this food out there in Phoenix? Maybe it isn't. But so many of Chicago's now venerated spots were, once upon a time, slingers of pad thai and crab rangoon to those who didn't look the part or know the secret handshake. Is it out there and we just haven't discovered it yet? Or is nobody putting it out there because they feel we aren't especially interested in discovering it? ARE we especially interested in discovering it? A lot of my hopes and fears for the Phoenix dining scene are tied up in the answers to these questions.

See, this is why I haven't written about Thai food for two years. Turns me into a raving lunatic.

Aroy Thai
4654 N. Damen Avenue
Chicago, IL 60625
Mon - Sun11 AM - 10 PM


I am greatly humbled, Dom.
Happy Holidays to you and your family.


Not at all, Erik... just hope you don't cringe too much at how little I've managed to learn since then :-)

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