Even, A Draw, It’s a Thai

Thai AddisonIt was one of those days with a blue sky, a gentle breeze, something that only Michael Franks could describe in the lyrics of any one of his summer songs. But there was still the remnants of melting ice on the ground. The hibernating bear in me was hungry. Well, it had only been since breakfast. Needless to say, if being on a diet to lose weight was a part of my resolution for the year, I have since reneged on it. My appetite has been rather fantastic and I blame it on working out and eating constantly to gain more weight by the end of the year. The thing is once summer arrives and I am enjoying my Normal Rockwell moments at window seats in any of the countless restaurants in Chicago, I may surpass my anticipated weight goal in advance of December. In the meantime, the gentle bear Gino seeks his next food offerings.

Last year when I was driving off the map to an assignment in the West Suburbs, I ached for some Thai food on occasion. Addison, Illinois, is not a bastion of restaurants a notch or two above fast food. During a brief visit with a friend who lives in one of the adjoining suburbs to Addison, I discovered with disappointment that two of the best Indian restaurants in the Chicago metropolitan area had closed their doors for business. Oh the shock. The horror. The fingernails on the chalkboard. There was only one other ethnic restaurant that I had stumbled upon and I quickly recalled its location. In a strip mall with stores that are quickly shutting their doors, at 74 W. Lake Street, is Thai Addison. I had a few days of lunch satisfaction at Thai Addison before I came to my senses and accepted an opportunity in downtown Chicago so that I could cut my commute down to thirty minutes, with meandering time for coffee.

Golden PursesDuring lunch, the moderately sized restaurant fills with patrons who appreciate Thai food that leaves you nodding your head with approval. With it being a Saturday evening and it also being kind in the temperatures outside, most who would have been there were probably partaking of whatever came to mind. My belly was growling, the bear in me at it, so I wasted no time selecting what I would have to stop the gastro noises. Instead of an appetizer and an entrée or a soup and an entrée, I opted for an appetizer, a soup, and an entrée. Realizing that I had driven off the map the way I did last year for my assignment, it would have been a crime for me to have indulged a light dinner and then cursing myself on the drive back into the city because of self deprivation of all the good things I could have had from the menu. So, in a manner that is very much unlike what people expect when they see me, I opened my mouth and out lept Thai, me placing my order a bit more fluently than I realized. [Must speak more Thai so that I can go to Thailand and really butcher the language.]

Tom Yum Goong

I started with golden purses. Forget about Louis Vuitton. Burn the Coach bag. Ditch that fake what-not you bought from the corner vender. These drops of fried wontons stuffed with crab left me with a sentiment of never wanting crab rangoon again. I savoured them. I loved them. And if the purses were stuffed with money, I would have devoured the seasoned coins and smiled just the same. So golden, so delicious, dipped in the accompanying plum sauce, they whispered to my growling belly to hush.  And then a glass bowl of tom yum goong arrived for my second course. Flavourful mushrooms and plump shrimp that screamed when my teeth sank through them, I had to pick the bowl up and finish handling business. Having requested the soup to be spicy, I was thankful for the Thai iced tea I had. Wow, in all caps. There was a woodsy catch to the tea that could be dismaying to some. However, the light sweetening and the milk made for a perfect glass of tea. Now, initially, I raised my eyebrow when I saw the colouring of the soup. It was a butternut squash orange, not the clear broth that you usually get at Thai restaurants. But it was the first spoonful of wow that put the visual in perspective. Bliss. And the third dish kicked it up a notch. The panang gari gai brought to mind the panang I love at one of my favourite Thai restaurants in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighbourhood. Unlike at the Lincoln Square restaurant where the panang comes in a clay pot, the dish is served in a ceramic bowl with complementary rice. And having it spicy was a huge bonus. The taste just danced around on my tongue. Queue me turning over the table and breaking into dance, doing jazz hands, kicks, splits, and random people dancing with me in a choreograph of food rapture. During my past lunch outings, I never had any of the curry dishes because my co-workers, all of us of the ilk that eats in a communal fashion, preferred non-curry dishes. Quite a few were Indian, so I understood. It was having the pananag at Thai Addison for the first time and finding such favour in it that it was gold to me.

Panang Gari Gai

When I had worked in the West Suburbs, I never really took the time to sit and enjoy my dishes. There was a constant need to rush back to the office, lest the managers spontaneously combust and blaze bright for those who wished they really would have caught on fire. Considering my appetite, the lunch portions were small, although they really weren’t. I simply had never sat still and savoured the dishes. Granted, I had ordered what was commonplace comfort Thai because lunch was always with a group, I always have to see if the curry dishes are worthy when I am solo. Pad Thai, bamee noodles, pad see ew, and the like are great. But for me, the mark of great Thai cuisine lies in the curry offerings. Fact great service and a reasonable price, like what I experienced at Thai Addison, and I am so. And as much as I hate to say it, I will gladly drive off the map to get some yummy Thai food to keep the bear smiling. Kab koon krub.

Thai Addison Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Down the Yellow Hutong Road

Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe

One thing I must admit is that you can never get enough of good Asian food when it is prepared properly. Some may inquire as to what other way can Asian food be done. If you have had any authentic Asian food, and by that I mean cooked in someone’s home, not at a buffet kitchen, then you know the difference. The food is spicy — not necessarily in the manner that it burns when you eat it — but it is full of flavour. There is a bloom to what you eat. You almost do not want to refuse offerings of more. For something quick, many of the express Asian cafes and buffet halls provide something akin to frozen shrimp meals: a lot of crust and the rest is essence. Bite into a  shrimp that comes with a frozen dinner and tell me how much actual shrimp you sank your teeth into. That is what you get with a lot of Asian cafes that do not want to offend a common palate. An absence of spices, a hint of flavour, and a lot of questionable output, you may find yourself barking like a dog in protest for having something so anti-delicious.

Fresh Ginger AleOne evening when I had finished work, I went to Oak Park, Illinois, to buy some wine, bread, and cheese from a cheese market that has become a big hit with my culinary sensibilities. It has reached the point where whoever is at the counter addresses me by first name. Yes, I love this particular wine shop so much that I am in there weekly procuring something for my snacking pleasure. But let me not digress. Although the downtown area of Oak Park is relatively small, I had covered most of the eateries in the pedestrian area of boutiques, cafes, and restaurants. But there was one that a friend had mentioned and seeing that there was some outdoor seating that I could take, I opted to follow her recommendation. Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe at 1113 Lake Street had the look and feel of the usual boilerplate Asian restaurant. Well, it actually has the canned ambiance of any American get-it-and-go establishment with a dine-in option. Where this restaurant’s impression exceeds expectations is with the output. While they may follow a formula that is popular now among most walk-in restaurants, the cosmetics of the place pale in comparison to the quality of the food that they serve. It may be that the eatery is relatively new, so the greeting from the cashier has a positive light. Then again, the hello with the smile I received may very well have been authentic. At the end of the day, you know people are ready to vacate the premises and go home or wherever. A smile that does not look pained after 6:00 PM is indeed genuine and that makes the establishment that more inviting.

Crab Rangoon

Being safe, I chose the Thai option and started with crab rangoon. Not really paying a lot of attention to the menu, I figured the crab rangoon would come as four small pastries stuffed with cream cheese and crab. Much to my chagrin, there were three crab rangoon, but they were delightfully substantial. And when you bite into them and the cream cheese does not projectile about, you know you have just had something worthy of recommending to friends and family. Much like crab rangoon served at Thai restaurants, there was a sweet and spicy sauce that came as an accompaniment. Yes, it was smashing. Not enough to drench the appetizer, it was enough to glaze them and I enjoyed every chomp just the same. With a pure ginger ale in hand, I was quite the happy chap devouring the wonder appetizer. Not that the ginger ale was something to fan and faint over, I will say that I love all-natural products. Seeing pure ginger floating about in the drink and the taste that was spicy but not enough to choke you, I will seek this particular brand in the markets. Sticking with the Thai theme, I had also ordered a red curry dish with chicken. As I have mentioned in several other posts, Thai restaurants in Chicago tend to waffle between thin curries and hearty curries. At Hutong Fresh Asian  Cafe, the curry was of a consistency somewhere in between. But that was okay. Loaded with green peas, brocolli, bamboo shoots, and eggplant, I understood how the word Fresh got introduced into the name of the restaurant. I kid you not when I say that I believe they have a garden in the back or somewhere nearby that has not fallen prey to the evils of pesticides and growth products. The chicken was fresh, for one, but the vegetables were certainly organic. The colouring and the flavour were all the cues I needed to know that I was putting something healthy into my body. My appetite appreciated it.

Red Curry Chicken

Looks can be deceiving and American restaurants have now taken on what I dub the Stanley Kubrick formula. Most upscale fast food eateries are applying the look and feel of Chipotle, Roti, Burrito Beach, and the like. While those cookie-cutter establishments have everything sitting in front for review, and you get served in a conveyor belt fashion, Hutong Fresh Asian Cafe does not have everything on display for you to point to while in a queue with other customers. One may argue pessimistically that you have no idea what is coming from the kitchen, but if you can taste the freshness, you can be confident that it is worth the trip to ease on down the yellow hutong road to get something that not only will your appetite thank you for, but also your body.

31 July 2012

Of Finding Many Holy Grails

Ruk Sushi Bar and Thai Ciuisine

When it comes to recommended dining in Chicago, newspapers and magazines tend to promote certain neighbourhoods more than others. Lincoln Park. Lakeview. Andersonville. Near West Loop. Near South Loop. Hyde Park. Wicker Park. Bucktown. Logan Square. River North. Uptown. Downtown. These are the ones that receive the most press and rightfully so. But these neighbourhoods comprise a rather small percentage of Chicago as a whole. In my politically correct vernacular, restaurants in these areas tend to cater to those with milder palates, lest some editorial gets posted by someone who was red in the face from spicy food. Along the lines of seeking something not a part of the common recommended eateries, I happened upon a Japanese sushi bar and Thai cuisine restaurant in Chicago’s Portage Park. At 4431 N. Milwaukee Avenue, Ruk may be found. Granted Portage Park is undergoing an incredibly slow urban renewal, there are some pearls that are starting to dot the landscape as buildings that were once vacant have since transformed into bars and restaurants. Ruk is one of these new establishments.

Crunchy Shrimp Maki

With an interior that looks like it was once a sports bar but now has a minimalist feel, Ruk is a great culinary boutique for some of the best sushi and Thai cuisine in Chicago. Upon entry, you are greeted with a welcome and escorted to any of the window seats. Yes, everyone gets a window seat. Behind the counter were two young Mexican sushi chefs who deserve high marks. This is the second sushi bar I have gone to where the sushi chefs were Mexican and who could easily raise the bar for flavour in the food without compromising the authenticity of the experience.

Spicy Ebi Tempura

Hungry as usual and daring to boot, I ordered two maki rolls and a Thai dish. I started with a crunchy shrimp maki that had shrimp tempura, cucumber, scallion, tempura crunch, masago, spicy mayo, and kabayaki sauce. Although the shrimp had been cut, there was still a lot of it in the roll. For there to have been five pieces, it was filling and the preparation had so much flavour without going all over the place that I could have ordered another crunchy shrimp and not had any remorse about possibly not trying another roll. But I ordered a spicy ebi tempura instead. Shrimp tempura, spicy mayo, cucumber, and scallion worked together in a magnificent combination that had me nodding to the sushi chefs in appreciation — I sat across from the sushi stand. I had a mind to order another sushi roll, but I wanted to try something from the Thai menu. I must admit that I find it fascinating that there seems to be a constant pairing of Japanese and Thai in Chicago, neither pairing cuisine with countries that border them. I have only experienced a blending of Thai, Indian, and Burmese cuisines in Toronto. Then again, Toronto is Utopian in its cultural diversity. But that is quite okay. And it was just fine when the panang chicken came to the table. I have had panang that was so bad that I wanted to throw the bowl against the wall. I have had panang so good that my eyes rolled back in my head. And then I taste the panang — and I ordered it Thai spicy since I have no mild palate — at Ruk and all I wanted to do was hum while my foot kept tapping the floor. The panang gravy was not hearty, but it was thick nevertheless and the taste-vibrant green and red peppers were the ideal accent. To the cook who prepared that dish with fresh chicken and superb panang deserved an applause.

Panang Curry with Chicken

In fairness to the newspapers and magazines that give plugs to the aforementioned neighbourhoods as having the best cuisine, I understand that they want to promote businesses that will be comfortable for the multitude. Having gone to most of the recommended eateries, I can attest to how delicious the meals were that I had eaten. However, the atmosphere in many comes across “upscale sports bar for the professional man and woman.” Loud and boisterous, you have to yell to be heard. Dining should not come with aggravation, even if the food puts many New York City restaurants to shame. But a few miles away from those locations are some of the absolute best authentic cafes and restaurants. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why I continue to seek many fooderies — my made-up word — where my appetite and I may be sated while continuing the quest for finding as many holy grails of dining as possible.

Ruk on Urbanspoon

Eurythmics Comes to Mind

Sweet dreams are made of this,
Who am I to disagree?
I travelled the world and the seven seas,
Everybody’s looking for something

Ah, I remember that song from the Eurythmics, way back when I was in high school and a huge fan of the 80’s British invasion. That song had been playing quite a bit recently, and I attribute part of it to serendipity in advance of me going to a boutique restaurant in Oak Park, Illinois, named Seven Ocean. While Annie Lennox provided her velvet voice over the words “seven seas,” Seven Ocean fit rather nicely and I was happy all the same, for I was going to have an adventure in fine dining.

Willamet Valley Vineyards RiselingLocated in downtown Oak Park at 122 N. Marion Street on a cobblestone stretch of small shops, restaurants, and independent cafes, is the neighbourhood’s most recent addition — Seven Ocean. Providing fine cuisine with an Asian influence, Seven Ocean is minimalist in its interior decoration. Not that ambience only defines a restaurant, that being the food here takes centre stage, there is a Stanley Kubrick sterile feel that I actually like. Then again, the man in me loves straight lines, simple colours, and lots of space. With nice jazz playing in the background, I was certain that the evening was going to be worth the visit. Given an intrepid and great waiter, he explained to me what I would receive in a seven-course tasting with wine pairing. Lucky for me I had skipped having a hearty lunch because seven courses with wine were certain to induce a state of bliss.

Tuna Tar Tar

For starting, I had tuna tar tar with a 2010 Riesling from Willamette Valley Vineyards. As far as white wines go, and I am not a wine snob, you simply cannot go wrong with a Riesling. On the dish, the only meat that I like raw is that in sushi. Even in Japan, I was okay delighting myself with several dishes of seafood that had not passed over any flame. Tar tar, on the other hand, is something I tend to avoid, mostly because it is some tar tar made from beef or another four-legged animal that I do not even eat cooked. However, the tuna tar tar at Seven Ocean receives exemption. Fresh tuna with Asian pear, avocado, aioli, raw wasabi tobileo, and chilli oil came on a plate with fried lotus root chips. So colourful, so appealing, and so appetizing, I slowly worked the tuna tar tar until there was only a faint smear of the chilli oil left. Not that I will indulge myself relentlessly on any other kind of tar tar after loving the tuna tar tar the way that I did, I will remember that Asian influence in food entertains exotic preparation. It was evident that Seven Ocean got it correct.

Fried Tiger Prawn

The second course was tiger prawn, lightly breaded and fried with a crust reminiscent of tempura. Served with beet root, wasabi sprout, and a tamarind caramel reduction, it had dawned on me that I was then in food heaven. Yes, the portions were small, as this was a taste, but the prawns were so plump that they practically popped shortly after my teeth sank past the tempura crust. Low-key jazz music playing in the background, each bite was hypnotic. Had there been a worry bothering me earlier, I had completely forgotten whatever the trouble was by the time I had finished the second course.

Edamame Cream Soup

Black Rice Noodle Served Cold in Balsamic VinaigretteThen came another glass of a white wine, a 2011 stainless Chardonnay from Chamisal Vineyards. A bit dryer than the Riesling, it was still an excellent accompaniment to the edamame cream soup that came as the third course. Usually, you when you hear the word edamame, you think of the bowl of salted beans served at Japanese restaurants. Served as a soup with soy, fresh cream tobiko and truffle oil and bacon infusing, you have a winning delicacy. After the second course was a peak dish, I initially thought that the soup was going to be a trip down into the valley. Absolutely not. Given some light, tasty bread or some exotic wafers, I could eat that edamame soup endlessly while enjoying wine with it.

Next to the table was black rice noodle served cold in balsamic vinaigrette with crab meat and sweet pepper over an asparagus spear. There was a tremendous Japanese persuasion in this dish. Not really sold on the course when the waiter was first explaining the dish, I was completely wowed after twirling a bit of the noodle and spooning it with the crab meat onto my tongue. Far from elaborate in presentation, the flavour was a work of culinary art and I beheld the visual effect briefly before continuing to polish off the rest. Even the asparagus spear that looked to have been steamed only tasted better than some doctored-up asparagus that I have had at other eateries. The fourth course was another winner.

Fried Red Snapper

Up to the table with the fifth course was a glass of 2011 savignon blanc from Wither Hills Vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand. Not a bad choice, it was an ideal selection for the fried red snapper. Pan seared with home made sweet and sour sauce, chopped apple, red onion, and dried chilli, I could have stopped, said that the five courses were top, requested the bill, paid, and left it at that. The West Indian in me loves red snapper, but having it at Seven Ocean really introduced a lust factor for the seafood that I had never experienced before. I thought the presentation was eye-catching, but nothing compared to the concert of ingredients making such a delectable recipe for love. And the savignon blanc was a remarkable partnering. Just to savour each bite, I was slow about engaging the dish to completion too fast and then having eater’s remorse. Love is to be cherished and that red snapper was the epitome of love.

Roast Duck Breast

When I thought that nothing could best what I had eaten already, there came as the sixth course a glass of 2009 cabernet savignon from La Linda Vineyards and roast duck breast in mild Thai red curry with saffron rice, crispy fried red onion, and langon. After the first bite, I forced myself to pause. Words could not describe how much I wanted to dance, sing, do something involving running for no apparent reason. Let me just say that the langon, which is an Asian tree fruit like lichee, tasted better than any plum or grape that I have ever had. Naturally sweet, this otherwise bland looking ball is so delicious that I would find it hard to believe that Asian children cringe whenever their parents try to get them to eat langon. As to the duck breast, this was not the oily duck that I have had at numerous restaurants before. Eaten with the companion saffron rice that was topped with the fried red onions, I was a man full of life and sated with great food.

Dinner is Served

Last to the table was dessert. Thankful that this was not heavy since I had been filled proper with six prior courses, I smiled at the presentation of a familiar dish — a plate of fresh sliced mango with sweet sticky rice, coconut cream with strawberry sauce drizzle, and chocolate sauce. Granted the dessert was not as fancy as the other dishes, and it was light so that one could finish all of it without feeling forced, the mango and sticky rice comprised a Thai delicacy that I have loved ever since I began eating Thai cuisine years ago. The chocolate sauce was more for effect, but the rest pandered to my constant appetite nicely.

La Linda Cabernet Savignon, 2009From the reservation to the confirmation of the reservation to the arrival and then to the whole dining experience, Seven Ocean is at the top of my list of restaurants. Not particularly a fan of fusion or Pan-Fill-in-the-Blank restaurants, when an establishment gets the concept correct, I will be the first to admit that I can become their greatest fan. The price is stiff, but nothing like restaurants that vie for or obtain top Michelin star ratings. I must say that I got more than what I paid for and the service was worthy of bottling, which is not something possible to do. Understanding that Seven Ocean just opened their doors, I hope that they receive more business. There are three factors working in their favour: delicious cuisine, fantastic service, and reasonable fare. Sweet dreams are made of these things. Fortunately for me, I travelled to Seven Ocean and found another awesome haunt for my culinary wants.

Seven Ocean 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

Pan-Asian Sampling Delight

Simply Thalia

When weekends arrive in Chicago, I tend to smile a little wider. I can sleep later in the mornings. I get a reprieve from hand-holding fellow colleagues at work. And I can eat until my heart is content, my belly is filled, and I can take a nap without anyone running into my space and disrupting it. Saturday morning arrives, it is sunny outside, I am on my way to some eatery, and then there is this thing called cloud coverage — always followed by cloud bursts of torrential downpours — that messes up the merry work for any outdoor activity. This has been a weekend phenomenon almost wears me down to spiritual defeat. But my appetite remains in tact, though.

After work a few days ago, I went by a Pan-Asian eatery that is in the concourse between the Red Line at Lake Street and the Blue Line at Washington Street. In the lower level of the new mall at 108 N. State Street is Simply Thalia, which is simply an Asian cafe of all good things. When I had gone the other day, my appetite was way off the scale because I had recently increased my workout routine and I had a hankering that was driving me sideways the wall. Having gone to the restaurant several months past and had a panang dish, I was not necessarily thrilled with the diligence done to their Thai curry dishes — more watery than hearty — but I was hungry and there are other items on their bill of fare. Today I wanted to try a different approach and I had decided that I would keep with my Snacking on Saturday [convenient] tradition. I was only going to have appetizers and, by George, I was going to like it. That was me psyching myself up for the edibles.

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

Saigon Shrimp Rolls

There was very little convincing that I had to do. Focusing on the appetizers, which were priced very low, I eyed three items that I wanted to delight myself with. I started with Saigon shrimp rolls. Who would have thought that rice paper rolled with shrimp, cucumber, carrots, lettuce, cilantro, bean sprouts, rice noodles, and mint could be so blooming satisfying? The Vietnamese apparently figured it out and the shrimp rolls that I feasted myself on with the complementary dipping sauce, consisting of a plum sauce and a hint of teriyaki sauce, really made an impression on me. This was the first time I have had Saigon shrimp rolls and loved them. My hat goes off the chef, cook, or frozen food merchant who dealt me this treat.

The next appetizer I had was Burmese samosa. Flaky to perfection and stuffed with sweet curried potatoes and spiced chicken, my mouth burst with flavours of Burma. One ethnicity lacking in the Chicago multi-cultural restaurant spectrum is Burmese. Albeit a small items on the larger menu, I was reminded of the fine eating experiences in many Burmese restaurants in Toronto, Ontario, and in Washington, DC. Served with a sweet mustard accented with a hint of cilantro, I know now that it is time for me to visit old friends in Toronto and in DC — to catch up with my friends, of course — for some loving from the kitchen courtesy some Burmese.

Burmese Samosas

Burmese Samosas

The final appetizer was Malaysian roti canai. Malaysian home-made naan served up with curry chicken dipping sauce was an absolute taste of heaven. It is quite evident that Simply Thalia does not concoct thick curry gravies, a case with the thin base for the curry chicken sauce. However, this curry was only thin, not watery, and it worked very well with the roti. I could eat the Malaysian roti canai everyday for the rest of my life and never grow tired of it. Hmm. Wait. I have a threshold and everyday would be too much; I would not want to risk tiring myself of such a dish full of love. But I found the roti alone to be a welcome to the palate and the curry sauce made it that more appetizing.

I cannot place Simply Thalia in any one ethnic bucket as there are many Asian cultures represented in the food — Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Burmese, Thai, Vietnamese, Korean, and Indian just to name a few. What I will add is that for there to be a plethora of Asian cultures present in the food at any one restaurant, there is a splendid job done keeping each ethnic dish specific to the culture which it represents, rather than introducing fusion and competing flavours.

Malaysian Roti Canai

Malaysian Roti Canai

For the three appetizers and some organic tea, the tab for my moment of food bliss was under $20. Small and rather close, Simply Thalia has a feel of a lounge — minus super tan blond Rachels in high heels and mini skirts and Oompa Loompa orange Barts in clothes way too tight. Granted servers do not perform acrobats to please your sensibilities, I was appreciative of the fact that when I had said I wanted each appetizer one at a time and spaced out between delivery, the individual who took my order honoured my request. So my three factors that keep me returning were there: great service, low price, and outstanding food. What am I going to do when I increase my workout routine again? That was a rhetorical question.

Also, Simply Thalia has a parent restaurant named Thalia Spice, which is at 833 W. Chicago Avenue. I am almost certain that the food is worthy of a visit. And even if you still want a sample of their tasty menu items, you can order online from your desktop or from your smart phone. I think I am outside of the delivery area, but I will go and have a seat at one of the tables and see what delight I can derive from some Pan-Asian sampling.

Simply Thalia on Urbanspoon