Siam Thai Cuisine — How I Got Started

Siam Thai Cuisine

During my days of living in Hyde Park, I became rather acquainted with three Thai restaurants on the E. 55th Street stretch between Lake Park and Hyde Park Blvd. There were Thai Snail, Thai 55th, and Siam Thai Cuisine. Thai Snail was where I learned a few phrases in Thai. Thai 55th was where I practiced speaking Thai. Siam Thai Cuisine was where I became more conversational. Having been gone from Hyde Park for seven years, I found myself in the area checking out the new edition to 53rd Street. But for lunch, I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at 1641 E. 55th Street.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

 

The manager still remembered me, not that I changed that much, except for a full, grey beard. After greetings and pleasantries in Thai, the manager said that I should order “my usual.” I was not going to argue with him about that. I had a glass of Thai iced tea, which is my favourite kind of iced tea. There is something about the smokiness in the tea that beats any pitcher of sun tea brewed below the Mason-Dixon Line. And when there is a plate of potstickers served with it, even the chilly temperatures that we have been having were tolerable. Soy sauce accented with sesame seeds came with the potstickers that were lightly fried, so the texture was not al dente like boiled dumplings. These were my favourite appetizer.

Potstickers

Potstickers

 

Having made a conscious and disciplined decision to remove beef and pork from my diet, I was certain that I was going to have panang chicken come to the table. Ah, but I forgot. My favourite entrée was yellow curry shrimp. Hearty like a gravy instead of a thin base, this is still my favourite. Filled with plump shrimp, red bell peppers, green bell peppers, and cubes of potatoes, and served with jasmine rice, I was rather glad that the manager remembered how much I loved the dish years ago.

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

Yellow Curry Shrimp and Rice

 

Siam Thai Cuisine still has a bit of a hole in the wall charm to it. The manager was an absolute great individual, very much the same outstanding person, just with more grey hair now. I went to Siam Thai Cuisine at least once a week during my Hyde Park days, either for dining in or for take-away. After this most recent visit and the temperatures warming up soon, consistently — I hope — I may have to bring myself to be okay taking the bus ride from Logan Square to Hyde Park weekly. When your Thai food is “that” aroy, you’ll understand.

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Thai Bowl Me Over

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.

Thai Bowl

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.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

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.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

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.

Panang Gari Ghai

Panang Gari Ghai

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.”

Tom Kha Goong

Tom Kha Goong

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.

Basil Chicken

Basil Chicken

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.

Thai Bowl on Urbanspoon Thai Bowl on Foodio54

WOW — Eat Like an Egyptian

WOW Egyptian Fast Food

The thing about being a xenophile is that you tend to become a curiosity seeker when it comes to food. A few years ago when I worked in the suburbs, there was a stretch through Addison, Glen Ellyn, Bloomingdale, and Carol Stream where you could find a plethora of fast food eateries (i.e., McDonald’s, Burger King, Five Guys, KFC, etc.) and stock big box restaurants (i.e., Red Lobster, Olive Garden, TGIFridays, and the like). All of the Indian restaurants on and off the main stretch of Army Trail Road have since closed and any other ethnic restaurants, outside of the Chop Suey style Chinese restaurant, were usually found by happenstance. There was, however, one restaurant that had a very slow opening — WOW Egyptian Fast Food at 105 Stark Drive in Carol Stream. Tucked off the western end of Gary Road once you turn from Army Trail Road to go south, you may miss it. What you will definitely miss is some very good Egyptian food, albeit fast food.

Ice Karkade

Ice Karkade

On entry, the jovial Egyptian behind the counter was, in a word, cool. Go to any American fast food restaurant and you get an obligatory, “Hello, welcome to [fill in the blank]. How may I help you?” It’s almost like asking someone if they want to walk across a pit of burning coals. What I got was, “Is this your first time?” to which I responded, “No.” With bright eyes, he gave me a hearty welcome. After I thanked him in Arabic, that was it. It was as though I was a long, lost friend who had returned from abroad. Perhaps he thought there was a bit of Sudanese in me and with Arabic being the mother tongue in Sudan, it was fair game to assume that I spoke the language fluently. My cultural makeup was even more interest for conversation. So the customer service went full tilt past 10 on a rating board and stayed up there even after I had mentioned that my Arabic was slightly conversational only.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

It was not necessarily a hot day, but it was moderately humid. That meant that a refreshing drink was in order. So, I ordered an iced karkade. I had to try this traditional tea so that I could see if it reminded me of the hibiscus tea I had thanks to a cab drive in Alexandria, Egypt, many years ago. Hibiscus tea in the bag that you get from your local market and even the loose leaf version that you buy in some tea shops don’t compare to what you get in Egypt. And having drank the iced karkade sans sugar, these Egyptians were true to tradition. For the meal, I had a plate of kufta chicken with Jerusalem salad and turmeric rice. Think of chicken sausage, although there is no sausage involved, only that the chicken is prepared in such a manner that it looks like a sausage concoction. With yogurt and hot sauce, and I don’t mean the kind of hot sauce that you buy at your local market, the flavours explode. The rice is not a bland accompaniment to the dish thanks to the turmeric accent. And the Jerusalem salad contained two of my favourite ingredients — tomatoes and cilantro. With complimentary pita bread, I ate everything to a satisfying ending.

Kufta Chicken

Kufta Chicken

When the cashier had said to me that I would tell all of my friends that this was the best Egyptian food in the whole of Illinois, I thought that was a bit presumptuous of him. He apparently had sipped some truth serum before coming to work and it had not worn off. Sure, WOW Egyptian Fast Food is the only Egyptian restaurant in the Chicago metropolitan area, but the food is worth the trek out to the suburbs. Well, it is for me, as getting to good food is not an inconvenience at all. Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and North African cuisine have forced Italian and Mexican food into second and third place here in the Chicago area. The good thing about WOW Egyptian Fast Food is that unlike the long list of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fast food restaurants that have been indoctrinated with the Chipotle assembly line method of food preparation, you don’t get that at WOW. You get hot food from the kitchen, unless you order salad, hummus, and babaganoush. And what of price you may ask? Ah, I got what I paid for and it may be fair to say that the quality bested the cost. Nevertheless, I will walk like an Egyptian, drive like an Egyptian, and eat like an Egyptian whenever the desire to return to WOW Egyptian Fast Food comes again.

Wow Egyptian Fast Food on Urbanspoon

The More Things Change

A Plate on Southport

Thai Iced TeaLately as I have been reading past posts that I have scribed, I have noticed that quite a few of the restaurants that I had gone to several years ago have since closed their doors to business. It is not that I expect all restaurants and cafes to stay open in perpetuity. But for those where the experiences were worth more than their weight in gold, seeing that they are no longer catering great service and outstanding food to a customer base can become a bit disheartening. And it is even more of a downer when you realize that for some, there had been friendships established. You always want to see your friends thrive in their endeavours.

One such case was Barberry Thai on Southport Avenue. I know the owner, having built a friendship prior to him opening the restaurant. I learned how to speak conversational Thai from him when we were not discussing politics, cultural memes, and economics. When he had mentioned that he was closing the doors, there was that empty feeling like losing something or someone dear to you. It was not just that the food was top, but that it was a friend who was involved. And recently, my flatmate had mentioned a restaurant called A Plate on Southport at 2819 N. Southport Avenue. When I got off the bus and walked the short distance to the restaurant, it occurred to me that I had been there before. There was a brief bittersweet moment, as I was standing in front of what used to be Barberry Thai. I was not having a deja vu moment. On first entry, there was still the exact familiar welcome that I always received when my friend was the owner. This time, only the faces had changed.

Tom Yum Koong
Still set up like a loft, there were the same seating arrangements on the upper level and lounge music playing in the background. I sat at one of the tables overlooking the ground floor from the loft balcony. Setting aside any pre-judgement about how I thought the dining experience would turn out, I ordered a tom yum koong for a start. With the weather vacillating between mild and chilly, I had a bit of sinus congestion. Nothing like a tasty non-medicinal remedy to clear the nasal passages and a spicy tom yum soup will certainly assist. Heat rising from my scalp and my nose starting to run, the soup was working its magic. Fat shrimp in a peppery broth was exactly what I needed and I slurped it to completion and to satisfaction.

Panang Curry ChickenThen came the panang curry gai. I have said several times before that I prefer my panang and my curries to be hearty, not of a thin base. The panang curry at A Plate on Southport is thin. However, it was so full of flavour that I opted to simply thicken it by adding the side dish of rice to it. That did the trick and it may be that I had also requested the panang curry to be extra spicy that it indeed pleased my palate more than it would have if I had ordered the dish with mild flavouring. Washing it all down with a tall glass of Thai iced tea — which by the way, would put Southern sweet tea to shame — I was rather gleeful after all was done. There really is no other word to describe my sentiments.

Honestly, I had gone to the restaurant a bit bent on not enjoying the visit. It turned out to be dynamic — if I can describe it that way. The same atmosphere that I remembered had apparently remained, friendly ghosts that were at peace and were more apt to make customers feel welcomed. Clearly the management is doing something correct, as the food and service were both indicative of such. The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. I still keep in constant contact with my friend who had lured me to 2819 N. Southport Avenue for some of the finest Thai cuisine several years ago. Now the new establishment will pull me back again and again. A friend didn’t go away when Barberry closed its doors. That relationship still remained intact. But as of 4 November 2012, I gained a new friendship. Hello, A Plate on Southport.

A Plate on Southport on Urbanspoon