Top 5 Thai restaurants in Chicago

December 24, 2010

Northern-style Thai sausage at Sticky Rice (photo: Joseph Storch)

All week long, we've been re-running some of our favorite Top 5 lists from 2010.  Today, it's all about lemongrass and galangal.  It's also going to be my final post for 2010.  I'm taking next week off, and will be back here January 3.  Look for one more video post next week, as Justin Kaufmann and I talk about food happenings in Chicago from the past year, and what's on deck for 2011.  It's been a wild ride these first 12 months on vocalo, and I thank you for all of the feedback you've given me in that time.  Thanks for checking in and spending a few minutes each day with me and my culinary musings.  Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

For too many years, Thai food in Chicago barely resembled the incredibly vibrant, flavorful soups, curries and salads from Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Whether it was a lack of available ingredients or a fear on the part of restaurateurs that they would scare away customers, recipes were dumbed down to the point where there were just two kinds of experiences - both on the extreme ends of the spectrum: either overly sweet (pad thai noodles) or ridiculously hot (curries and salads); we all assumed that was just the way things were supposed to taste.  

Having had a chance to eat in Thailand - twice - I've come to appreciate (and enjoy) the complex harmony of sweet, sour, salty and spicy - usually all in one dish - not to mention the careful, simultaneous balance between soft and crunchy textures.  Over the past few years, thanks to great grocery stores, people's eating experiences in Thailand and a proliferation of food shows and passionate blogs, we all know that Thai food can and does have an incredible depth of flavor.  

Another reason locals have had great eating opportunities comes by way of a guy named Erik M., who took it upon himself a few years ago to translate the "Thai Only" menus that ex-pats were ordering off of in a few restaurants; they've become de rigueur for true Thai food aficionados at places like Spoon, TAC and Sticky Rice. Each of these places not only has the requisite dishes that hail from the streets of Bangkok - crunchy som tom (papaya salad), soft, pliable tod mun (fish cakes), toothsome egg or rice noodles and rich, complex curries - but they also present them in all of their full-flavored, nuanced glory.

1. Amarind's  6822 W. North Ave., (773) 889-9999
Rangsan Sutcharit worked at Arun's for about nine years, and he brings his eye for presentation to every plate, even if it's something as simple as spinach noodles embedded with bits of crabmeat.  His whole-fried fish dishes are not to be missed.  I'm always torn going here, since it's only about six blocks from Johnnie's Beef.

2. Sticky Rice  4018 N. Western Ave., (773) 588-0120
The focus here is on Northern-style dishes, like the sai ua (spicy sausage, pictured above). Their kao soi (coconut milk, chicken, boiled and crispy noodles) is one of the best I've had outside of Chiang Mai. 

3. Aroy  4654 N. Damen Ave., (773) 275-8360
Aroy means "delicious" in Thai, so you better be confident you can deliver it if that's your calling card.  No worries here, as the curries and vibrant salads are more than worth any wait you might endure in the tiny dining room.  Be sure to ask for the Thai Menu.

4. Spoon Thai  4608 N. Western Ave., (773) 769-1173
Thanks to fellow Thai food freak Michael Nagrant for introducing me to the banana blossom salad here (even though it was at their Silver Spoon downtown location on Rush).  They have the same food up at their Lincoln Square store, and a stellar pad thai and my favorite dessert in the world: fresh mango and coconut cream-laced sticky rice.

5. TAC Quick Thai  3930 N. Sheridan Rd., (773) 327-5253 ()
TAC also has a Thai-only menu - so be sure to ask for it.  Their crispy, crunchy/spicy som tom (papaya salad) is a must; I think it's among the best in town.

Honorable mentions:

Arun's  4156 N. Kedzie Ave., (773) 539-1909
It gets a bad rap due to its aloof service and high prices (around $85 for a tasting menu) but when you see how many people it takes to make a proper kao keb pak moa (delicate steamed rice flour dumplings filled with ground pork) or a curry paste that Arun learned to make by watching from his mother's apron strings in Southern Thailand, you'll have a greater appreciation.  The wine list is deep (gruner, gewurtz and müller-thurgau, anyone?), and the beautiful, hand-painted walls and fine Thai art make you feel as if you're dining in the home of a Thai dignitary.

Siam's House (Niles) 7742 N. Milwaukee Ave., Niles, (847) 967-2390
You want to see hungry ex-pats relishing a chance to eat the flavors from back home? Eat here on a Sunday.

Also, Thai Pastry in Uptown (4925 N. Broadway, 773-784-5399), Tub Tim Thai in Skokie (4927 Oakton, 847-675-8424) and Ruby of Siam (even though they have locations in the Loop on Washington St. and on Emerson St. in Evanston, I think the location in the Fashion Square Mall - 9420 Skokie Blvd, Skokie, 847-675-7008 - is the best of the bunch)