Ben’s Noodles and Rice, And I Don’t Mean Uncle Ben’s

Ben's Noodles & Rice

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

December has arrived. As much as December is a festive month, it is also the time that I spend wondering what happened to the other eleven months in the year. In addition to that, there are several holiday parties that I have attended so far, each where I nursed one to two glasses of a nice scotch while I watched others relive their college days of drinking and not being aware that someone had a cellphone out recording their antics. But this December has been one where I have spent a lot of time in front of the mirror looking at my flat tummy thanks to a few months of CrossFit. (Insert bear growl.)

After a Saturday morning of doing some “dreamed up” CrossFit exercises, I had an appetite unlike I have had since I started CrossFit training in September. I finished off some pancake mix that a friend had given me along with a plate of eggs scrambled with sautéed onions and cilantro. I washed it all down with three glasses of protein shakes and my belly was still growling. There was waffling between going for Indian food or Italian for lunch. I settled on Indian as opposed to Italian and while on my way to my favourite Indian cafe, I walked by a Thai restaurant that looked to have a cozy cafe feel to it. Well, having never been there, I stopped in. Ben’s Noodles and Rice at 1139 W. Bryn Mawn Avenue was my destination.

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

Basil Rolls with Spicy Plum Sauce

I was not in a mood for pondering what I wanted. Truth be told, I glanced at the menu for some appetizer that I hadn’t had before. The basil rolls with spicy plum sauce caught my eye. It was meant to be because the fine, ground beef wrapped in basil leaves, wrapped more in finger-length pastries, and then deep-fried was a highlight.  A bigger highlight was the Thai iced tea, which wasn’t merely red tea with milk in it. This tea had a smoky flavour to it that heightened my addiction for the beverage. It may not be to the liking of everyone’s palate, but I was satisfied with its balance to the basil rolls.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

The temperatures in Chicago had been quite nippy, and being only a few blocks from the lake doesn’t make matters better, I wanted something spicy. I ordered tom yum goong and requested it to be Thai spicy. Warning: If you are not accustomed to eating spicy food, do not order your dishes Thai spicy. Instead, order them mild. I loved the peppery bite in each sip and final slurp of the tom yum goong. Plump shrimp, fresh mushrooms, cilantro, chives, and flavourful broth made for a perfect recipe in a bowl to make the wintry chill not so bad.

Panang Curry Chicken

Panang Curry Chicken

Fried Banana

Fried Banana

To thoroughly sate my appetite, I ordered panang curry chicken. It has been rather hard for me to deviate from Thai curries, being a culinary zombie for any curries. The panang curry was of a thin consistency, but packed with green peas, bell peppers, chicken, and a wow factor. Having had green curry, red curry, yellow curry, panang, and mussaman at countless Thai restaurants, I highly recommend to anyone that they opt for curries when they order. Definitely order the panang curry at Ben’s Noodles & Rice. And for my finale, I had the fried banana and a cup of green tea. Bananas dipped in coconut milk, deep-fried, and dusted with confectioners sugar are the best. They’re golden. They’re delicious. They make me smile. They are the best, indeed.

Ben’s Noodles & Rice is definitely one to go to for an authentic Thai dining experience. There was a constant flow of individuals coming in to enjoy a meal at the restaurant and a steady stream of customers coming in to order something for to-go. Noticing a lot of customers and the restaurant staff greeting each other by name and very familiarly, it was evident that Ben’s Noodles & Rice is common grounds for those who appreciate not only the outstanding food, but the top service. When I think back on the possibility of me having had Indian or Italian food for lunch this particular day, I am glad that I settled on Thai. Yes, I will be one of those customers who return to Ben’s Noodles & Rice so often that they will probably make recommendations for me in advance of me reaching for a menu.

Ben's Noodles and Rice on Urbanspoon

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

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

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

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