Crepe Town, Where French Meets Thai

Crepe Town

As of late, it has occurred to me that I have been driving more than taking public transportation. That detracts from being able to see the world at eye level because driving in Chicago requires you to focus your attention in front of you always – except for when cars and daredevil children dash in front of you from behind parked cars. Fortunately in Chicago, the best way to combat missing out on ground activity is to take the bus. If you see something that catches your eye, pull the cord so the bus driver can let you get off at the next stop, exit the bus, and engage.

Green Tea Bubble Tea

Green Tea Bubble Tea

I followed my own advice this past weekend. While strolling pass a few boutique cafés in Uptown, I espied the word “Crepe” in one of the windows. With limited French representation on Chicago Alphabet Soup, this finding was a boon. There were two window seat tables that awaited me. I obliged and entered an airy boutique, greeted and welcomed by a smiling face. Having gone to two other creperies in the city, I wondered how Crepe Town at 3915 N. Sheridan Road, my new find, would compare. A brief scan of the menu had quickly proven that I was going to be in for an eclectic treat, not just some crepes accented with a drizzle, dash, or splash of something. I knew that everything was going to be fine when the green tea bubble tea arrived and left me mouthing “Wow” after the first sip.

The angels sang when I forked my first forkful of pasta a la tom yum into my mouth. I never would have fathomed the concept of Thai meets Italian with tom yum soup being the foundation for the dish. The pasta a la tom yum was flavoured with special chili herb sauce and then topped with mushrooms and shrimp. Just imagine me having a taste of that delicacy and now imagine me at the best Italian restaurant ever, making a scene that they can’t match the pasta a la tom yum I had at Crepe Town. I think the server was perhaps a bit concerned that I was slightly unbalanced because I know I did more than my share of mumbling and heaving heavy sighs throughout the meal. The angels continued to sing.

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

Spaghetti a la Tom Yum

By the time my order of Spice Up arrived at the table, the angels had taken off their robes and were doing jazz hands, kicks, and spins. We are talking about fried fish filet with coconut curry sauce and basil. The freshness and burst of taste of the fish were highlights alone. Add to that the fish being blanketed within a tasty crepe and accented with a curry sauce. This dish was so wrong for all the right reasons. Imagine me having a delightful bite of this crepe dish. Now imagine me at the best French bistro ever, shouting that they don’t know what they’re doing and they need to take lessons from the chef at Crepe Town. By the time I had eaten a fourth of the crepe, I had to apologize to the server for my constant ramblings. I’m not lying. I am sure you have seen alcoholics who babble at imaginary friends. You probably pitied them, too. You would have had the same sentiments while watching me shaking my head, smiling ridiculously, rolling my eyes, and prattling on to no one in particular about random nonsense.

Spice Up

Spice Up

After finalizing the pasta and the crepe dishes, I requested a pause so that my feet come come back down to the ground. Really, I was hovering close to the ceiling. There was such a high from the bloom of flavourful dishes that I had just polished off. And while I was slowly returning to earth, I engaged the server in conversation about how long the restaurant had been in business. When she responded that they had been open for three years, it was indeed clear that I had been missing a lot by driving. All the times I had passed by Crepe Town and never looked off to the side and had I taken the Red Line to the Sheridan stop to browse the cafés and boutiques for a spell, I would have stumbled upon the meaning of bliss well before now. And after a little more conversation, I had made the observation that the dishes had a Thai influence to them. There are a few restaurants in Chicago that inject fusion into their menus, but Crepe Town is the example of perfection when it comes to blending two very disparate cultural cuisines.

Bananas Foster

Bananas Foster

A little more banter and my feet were firmly planted on the floor. My belly was ready for some dessert. I ordered bananas foster and a cappuccino. I have to pay for the hole in their ceiling because my rocket blasted straight for the constellation Eating Gino before I completed the third bite. The delectable crepe encased bananas and caramel. Served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and an accent of whipped cream, I operated in slow motion, working my knife and fork on the dessert while resuming my blarney. To make it worse, the cappuccino was from high quality beans. Not requiring any sweetener was the indicator. I covered my mouth to keep from shouting. I turned my face from the window so that pedestrians would not see my display of food satisfaction. And who should I face with a stifled smile plastered across her face but the server. “It’s ‘that’ good?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded, “can’t you tell?” There was laughter.

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

Crepe Town is a quiet café that I am sure fills to capacity earlier in the day on the weekends. It may also be a hot spot for the after-five crowd. I was fortunate to have gone when I had much of the café to myself. I could photograph my dishes without feeling as though I was disturbing anyone and I could enjoy my food without some laissez faire parent letting his or her Damien and Rhoda have a run of the place. If you want good crepes in the Chicago metropolitan area, there are a few creperies that I could recommend. I have blogged one crepe house – Icosium Kafe – that is still high on my list of recommendations and I have gone to another one that wasn’t worth blogging. Just to let you know how much I fell in love with the food, service, and the place, it is looking like Crepe Town may be a candidate for my Top 10 List of eateries for 2013. The angels would agree.

Crepe Town on Urbanspoon

If I Were Lost

Saigon Pho  CafeOne of the things about being a part of the international community is that I am indeed open to trying new and exciting things, especially when it comes to food. As of late, I have been going to restaurants and switching into a mode of what it would be like to be abroad, lost, and hungry. Although I have several languages in my multilingual box, there could be the chance that I wind up somewhere among people who can only acknowledge my presence, but who cannot communicate with me other than with a nod, a quizzical frown, a smile, and a response of “Sorry, but I don’t speak English.” In the meantime, I would have to eat and it would help to not be a haughty American who sneers at everything that does not get come in the form of French fries, hamburger, hot dog, steak, potatoes, or macaroni and cheese. American comfort food has taught me one thing: it will bloat your waistline more than it will get you help abroad if you are hungry.

Egg Rolls

Egg Rolls

I went to Forest Park, Illinois, to a stretch of eateries along Madison Street. On this particular day when I went, there were several different languages that I picked up and that is not something you find too common in the suburbs unless you are in the middle of a tourist setting where global visitors congregate. But in the midst of all the languages bandied about, outdoor cafes with patrons taking coffee, and quaint little side streets, there was a Vietnamese cafe that beckoned to me more. I obeyed and entered Saigon Pho & Cafe at 7237 Madison Street.

Mango Smoothie

Mango Smoothie

The inside is reminiscent of a polished hole in the wall. Far from the usual garish display that you may find at some Asian restaurants, it was quite homey. Being the only exotic in the restaurant, I was greeted with authenticity, not with distance. That was absolutely cool because the welcome made it a little easier to switch into the mode of imagining what it would be like to be in Hanoi somewhere off the beaten path and wanting something to eat rather than being guarded. I have been to several Vietnamese restaurants. However, I have never been to Vietnam and noting that the wait staff and a few who poked their heads out from the kitchen were all Vietnamese, I figured this would also give me the chance to try a few words in the language to give myself comfort. All of that went out the window when the waiter saw my camera and we launched into lengthy conversation about cameras, camera equipment, photography, and locations for getting great shots.

After the pleasantries had been exchanged and I had gotten out a few butchered words in Vietnamese, I placed my order. I ordered a mango smoothie without tapioca pearls. I love those pearls but even with the straw being wide, they tend to block the flow of the smoothie. Asian restaurants and cafes have a monopoly on smoothies and getting them correct. The mango smoothie at Saigon Pho & Cafe came in a fancy glass with a decorative stirrer, not in a plastic cup. And let me just say that the flavour exploded and had a little bit of pulp in it, which was all the hint I needed to know that some actual mangoes had been in a blender for the drink. And to go along with the smootie, I had egg rolls with a spicy plum sauce. Much like mini egg rolls that you have at Chinese and Thai restaurants, they were crunchy on the outside and filled with carrots, bean sprouts, and chopped shrimp.

Seafood Pho

Seafood Pho

With the weather having waffled a bit as of late, my sinuses had been having their merry way with me. Knowing that Vietnamese food can have a kick to it, I scanned the menu for one of the soups. If you do not remember anything about Vietnamese cuisine, they tend to shame anyone who attempts to make a good soup. The seafood pho that I had was a prime example. Loaded with vermicelli, shrimp, mussels, and fish balls, not only did the spices tell my nasal passages to behave but the taste was dazzling. But let me not forget one ingredient that I would otherwise assume the haughty American stance and thumb my nose in disdain. There were a few pieces of tripe in the soup. Ah, don’t bother looking it up on Google. Tripe is the inner lining of the stomach. We all know that chitterlings are a delicacy, and one that I would gladly endure being set on fire for rather than eating. However, tripe is one ingredient that I have partaken of in Nigerian pepper soup and in other Vietnamese soup without as much as a grimace. It may be that the texture is more akin to that of calamari rather than that of an uncooked dumpling. It may be that I have beheld the malodorous horror of chitterlings before they were boiled to their edible state and not experienced the same of tripe. It may also be that tripe, if cooked the right way, has more of a seasoned taste to it. Either way, I devoured all of the soup.

Vietnamese Crepe

Vietnamese Crepe

Wanting at least one other thing to journal for my experience at Saigon Pho & Cafe, I ordered a Vietnamese crepe with shrimp. Brought to the table on a large plate was a crepe stuffed with shrimp, bean sprouts, and spices. There was also a plate of lettuce, mint, carrots, cucumber, and a vinaigrette sauce. In the traditional manner of eating the dish, you take a little bit of the crepe, wrap it in lettuce with carrots and cucumber, dip it in the vinaigrette sauce, and then eat. There was only a little bit of the crepe that I could tackle before surrendering and requesting a box for the remainder of it. While I waited and cashed out, the waiter and I talked more about cameras, the wise choice of buying a camera body and investing in lenses, and recommendations of some Vietnamese restaurants in the city north of where I live.

For the few phrases of Vietnamese that I did get off my tongue, with a few corrections, English is quite a common language there. That’s fine, but when going to restaurants where there is someone in the kitchen or taking the order who knows as much English as I know Vietnamese, it would help to have a comfort requesting something for the palate. At Saigon Pho & Cafe, the price was much less that what one would expect. And with the wait staff being cool with my attempt at the language, I have a feeling that much like the way I learned Thai, I will polish my language talents in Vietnamese while indulging some pho on a regular basis. Hmm. No chance for me getting lost in Forest Park getting to the restaurant, for sure.

Saigon Pho & Cafe on Urbanspoon

Suit and Thai

Jin Thai Cuisine

Thai Iced TeaOne of the things about living in Chicago and having a job that requires occasional commuting to the suburbs and travel away from the city is that you lose a bit of your social life. Being stuck in traffic, a good part of your commute being done in second or third gear, and having to watch out for the ambitious drivers who rush to get to red lights and stop signs is never an enjoyable experience. Let me not get started with required travel that means you wake up in some hotel in a different time zone that wrecks your sleep and ultimately your body clock. It is impossible to have a social life and that can also become problematic for someone who has an aggressive appetite like I do. Then I bite down real hard and recognize that I have a mortgage to pay for the next twenty years. Of course, there are times when I am able to partake of some culinary adventures — albeit sometimes rushed because I am responding to some work related crisis — and I find great satisfaction in feeding my hunger monster some worthy ethnic food when I have a good stretch of free time in Chicago to enjoy the meals.

A few weeks ago I was passing through the North Side of Chicago on my way to my old neighbourhood in Rogers Park. On the way, there was a certain Thai restaurant that grabbed my attention. Seeing that it was empty, I figured I would go in and enjoy a nip of something before continuing to my old stomping ground. From what I could tell, the restaurant — Jin Thai Cuisine — at 5438 N. Broadway was relatively new. That had to be why there wasn’t a large crowd of patrons sitting around filling their jaws with the tasty Thai food that comes from the kitchen. During the first visit, I had ordered panang chicken that blew my mind and made my hunger monster spin out of control with bliss. From the first experience, there was no reason that I should not have returned and with my camera to capture the impression of the happiness that comes from their stove. So on my second visit, I went early and found the restaurant again light with customers. Having a window seat, I perused the menu — knowing that I was going to have an appetizer and a curry dish. I was ready for action, as always.

Kanom Buang

The waitress had warned me that the servings are large at Jin Thai Cuisine. She was not there when I went the first time, so she was not aware of how I pander to my appetite, even if it means handling large portions that others would find overwhelming. I started with a Thai iced tea and let me just say that I need to return and ask for the Jin Thai Cuisine recipe specifically. Of all the Thai iced teas I have had, this was the first time that it popped for me. There are now three refreshing drinks that I could imbibe endlessly — Jamaican june plum juice with ginger, Brazilian lemonade, and Jin Thai iced tea. This red tea with milk was worthy of high marks. Mind you, when I say this I am not merely giving a shameless plug. No, no, there is a great deal of satisfaction derived from sipping the Thai iced tea from Jin Thai Cuisine.

RotiFirst to the table was kanom buang. This was a rather large plate consisting of a crispy crepe stuffed with tofu, shrimp, coconut flakes, and bean sprouts. Served with it was a cucumber salad with a sweet and spicy dressing and a side salad that had mint in it. This plate was large enough to have been an entrée and I remembered the waitress saying that the portions were large. Considering the kanom buang was an appetizer, I thought that it would have been manageable. I managed to eat all of it, but she was not giving me a false statement when she had qualified her statement by saying that everything came in large portions. At first, the whole dish looked visually stunning, the colours bursting on the plate. Then I had the first bite and my eyes rolled towards the back of my head. Anyone who complains about never having any kind of personal pleasure should go to Jin Thai Cuisine and order this dish. No competing flavours, just everything allowed to shine as you sink your teeth into a delightful treat that could make the French turn their noses up with bitterness for someone making their delicacy sing like Valkyries.

I sat for a while before indulging an entrée. Remembering the bowl of panang chicken and jasmine rice from the first visit, I imagined the yellow curry chicken would be of similar size. Pause. And it was. But the rub with the yellow curry chicken is that it did not come with chopped Idaho potatoes in it. No, it had sweet potatoes. I am one for trying something different and when it is done correctly, there could be a break in the clouds, a ray of light shining down, and a chorus of angels singing. That was indeed the case with this bowl of yellow curry chicken. I do not think I want to have yellow curry prepared with white potatoes from this day forward. The sweet potatoes were not sweetened but their essence sweetened the curry sauce. Prepared Thai spicy style because I needed to burn out my allergies, I joined the aforementioned angels in song. Eaten with a plate of roti bread, there could have been an earthquake, people running through streets screaming, cars crashing into each other, and the winning lottery numbers in my possession, and I would not have cared. Well, let me not tell that lie about not caring about the winning lottery numbers. I may be a man with an easy appetite, but a fool is not a part of my fiber. I never would have thought that I could have had such a wonderful reaction from something as minimalist as changing up potatoes in a dish. And then I was reminded that my whole ethnic dining quests have been all about finding differences and varieties in my culinary experiences.

Yello Curry Chicken

Jin Thai Cuisine is one of those spots that I can see becoming a regular haunt for me. Yes, I know I say that in every post, which is indeed evident of me being a man with an incredibly easy appetite. There simply is no reason to shirk a restaurant that has outstanding service, delicious food, and low prices. Even if I tried, I could not come up with a reason why I should not return to Jin Thai Cuisine within the next few months at least four more times. If you live in the vicinity of the 5400 block of N. Broadway or you find yourself in that area, stop in and see for yourself. And now that I think of it, there may be a few evenings after work when I shall forego going home to get out of my work clothes and go have a suit and Thai moment at Jin Thai Cuisine.

Jin Thai on Urbanspoon