As much as I love taking personal holidays abroad, the one thing I hate the most about such vacations is WHEN THEY END. There is something incredibly wrong with being able to spend a great length of time away from work and work involved in holding friends’ hands and playing psychologist only to return to the very things you were thanking God for having escaped, even if only for a few weeks. No one ever said that life was fair. But I will be the first to say that returning to the great city of Chicago takes the edge off the disappointment a little.
I wasn’t off the plane that long before my stomach had started growling. Not that I didn’t indulge a fair amount of food while relaxing in business class on the flight coming back to Chicago, but my “Must Eat All the Time” switch got reset immediately and that meant jet lag and whatever else had to be put on hold until I dealt with my hunger. Needless to say, my mind was all over the place and I was not particularly in the mood for anything akin to fine dining or too fast that I would feel I had slipped back into indulging McDonald’s. So, I decided to make a quick dash to University Village, of all places, and go into extemporaneous mode after getting there. And where should I end up but at a hole in the wall by the name of Thai Bowl at 1049 W. Taylor Street.
If you are looking for ambience, forget it. If you want great service, albeit with conversational English, this is the spot. If you want some Thai food that will blast you off to Saturn, look no further. When I had arrived, the restaurant was empty. That meant having the pick of any seat in the restaurant and no sooner had I taken my seat, placed my order, pulled out the camera to prepare for taking photos, and taking the white balance to make sure the colour of the photos were true to life than a group of six giggling tweens came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. I swear I am either cursed or emit something that draws people almost into my personal space any time I enter an empty establishment and take a seat.
By the time my Thai iced tea arrived at the table, I had tuned out the incessant banter related to random Twitter feeds, some other young woman – not at the table – who had on an outfit that was unbecoming of her, embarrassing photos on Instagram, the laughable Miley Cyrus renaissance and her father’s stamp of approval on it, and requests for “Take a photo of me.” The iced tea really hit the spot and was a great segue to the bowl of tom yum goong. Oh so spicy, shrimp swimming so calmly in a tasty broth accented with lemon, tomatoes, mushrooms, cilantro, and ginger, my sinuses that had been compromised thanks to the pressurized cabin known as an airplane were relieved.
After finishing the bowl of tom yum goong and waiting a few minutes, the greatest love of all came to the table. I had ordered a panang curry with chicken. Thinking that I would receive a bowl of panang and a cup of rice, I was a bit dismayed initially when there was only a giant bowl of what I thought was only panang that had arrived. I pulled the bowl closer and saw that the panang had been poured on top of the rice. No problem, I thought, as I began mixing the curry and rice. There were baby corn, mushrooms, and green peppers in it instead of the usual green and red peppers. It was the flavour that left me dreamy-eyed. OH MY GOD! Being all involved with the dish, I somehow managed to work the chopsticks so properly that I had finished all except for a smearing of gravy in the bowl. Although I can’t say that I remembered if this happened, or not, but I have a feeling I was transported to Bangkok briefly because the authenticity in that dish screamed “All that other stuff you have been eating is all wrong.”
I had to return so that I could sample something else. The tom yum goong and panang curry chicken were not enough. For my second visit, I tried something different just to mix things up a bit. I started with a bowl of tom kha goong. This was such a drool-worthy bowl of soup, unlike what I have had at many Thai restaurants. Instead of seeming to have only a coconut milk base, there was the necessary hint of curry that made it that more appetizing. The mushrooms that burst with every bite, the fresh tomatoes that didn’t taste like they had been grown prematurely, the cilantro that you can never go wrong with in any dish, and the few morsels of shrimp created a recipe that makes for a fantastic year-round soup. I rounded out my meal with a bowl of basil chicken. Although not as spicy as I have had at other Thai restaurants, it still rang with flavour. Not wanting it to end, I saved some to take home with me so that I could continue my Thai happiness later, like around the middle of the night when I sleepwalk to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator.
The prices, I guess you could say, are comparable to what you find at other Thai restaurants. Where I think Thai Bowl may be cheating themselves is with the prices because the quality and flavours remove them from being “just another Thai restaurant.” It is clear that Thai Bowl is a favourite among the students at neighbouring University of Illinois Circle Centre and residents in the nearby area because there was a constant flow of them coming to get take-away orders. I understand fully. Logan Square may not be in the immediate vicinity, but for any food that bowls me over like Thai Bowl did, the return trips are worthwhile.