710 N. Rush
Chai and Vanna Gumtrontip opened Lincoln Square's remarkable Spoon in 1996, serving fresh, competent Ameri-Thai standards, but also, more important, a range of authentically Thai dishes from an extensive "secret" menu, which isn't so secret anymore thanks in part to steady advocacy on Internet food-chat boards. In September the couple expanded, opening SILVER SPOON in the much more competitive Gold Coast, next door to the Thai consulate. With their friend Yu Gua Cheng, a Chinese sushi chef, they envisioned a Thai-Japanese fusion that would set their new place apart from the many Thai joints in the neighborhood that phone it in.
The word fusion makes me want to eat Hamburger Helper for a week, but many of the combinations the Gumtrontips and Yu have come up with, some obvious and some unlikely, are inspired. Yu's red snapper sashimi with crispy onions is a blazing religious vision with spears of fresh fish pinwheeling out from a nucleus of fried shredded onions and daikon, garnished with salmon roe and drizzled with hot sauce. Against all my expectations, the combination of raw, cold, and crispy-hot really works. Vanna, whose family runs a restaurant in Bangkok, dreamed up the moo ping (grilled pork) maki, which is served with a searing papaya salad. The shrimp tempura maki, topped with an aerated green curry sauce, sounds like it's trying too hard, but it's a perfect chemistry of crispy, soft, sweet, and spicy. Nam pla goong chae, butterflied raw shrimp marinated in fish sauce, is a very strong and delicious dish, and not terribly easy to come by around town. Silver Spoon intensifies it by adding a sliver of raw garlic and bits of pickled yellow daikon. All of these things are served with the standard soy sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi paste, but I wouldn't bother with them--they'd throw off the balance of brilliant flavors and textures.
Of these items, only the shrimp tempura maki is on the regular menu--the Gumtrontips are still figuring out what the day-to-day lineup will be. The others show up on the specials board from time to time, and Chai says more fusion dishes will be on the menu soon. But you can always ask for interesting stuff that isn't listed, or volunteer to be a guinea pig for a new creation. And, just as at Spoon, you can also get some of the more home-style off-menu things. I had kuaytiaw reua, or "boat noodles," a beefy, peppery brew with meatballs and tender flank steak that was seasoned with marijuana in the old country. And the marinated Thai fried chicken--small chunks of bird on the bone with a tamarind dipping sauce--is every bit the miracle that it is on the mother ship. Even standards like panang curry are done with respect; full of lightly sauced cuts of tender beef flank instead of the canned-curry-drowned shreds of rawhide you get most places. Silver Spoon is one of a handful of local restaurants that will honor requests from non-Thais for food made "pet-pet," or Thai spicy.
5248 W. Devon
Apinya "Ann" Leevathana was an accountant for 12 years, so not many outside her family knew that she was a skilled cook too. When her son went off to college early this year her husband, a mailman, began scouting his Edgebrook route for a good spot where she could show her stuff. It was big news in the sleepy neighborhood when she opened THE ELEPHANT in March along a busy but culinarily humdrum stretch of Devon--there isn't another Thai restaurant for miles. Though Leevathana is from Bangkok and wears an apron covered with pictures of red chiles, she isn't pushing aggressively spicy dishes on her unsuspecting neighbors, but her interpretations of the usual suspects are well above average. Her egg rolls are crunchy and plump with glass noodles and garnished with large, fresh leaves of Thai basil. Chive dumplings, which can so easily deliquesce into soggy blobs, come out of her kitchen crisp and hot. Her hand-cut papaya salad gives a slow burn that shouldn't scare off anyone (ask for it with dried shrimp, which is how Thais usually eat it). Leevathana really shines on the specials board: I had a salmon fillet, dressed in slivered ginger, that was cooked perfectly, moist and medium rare. She can be prodded to ramp up the heat too--the larb chicken and tom yum goong provided the burning ecstatic high I jones for. For dessert she has a few different bubble teas, another anomaly this far northwest of Argyle and Chinatown, and a few tropical-fruit-flavored ice creams, but maybe the sweetest finish is when she bestows free fruit upon her customers, with a salt, sugar, and chile mixture to dredge it in, or plain fresh pears from her own tree.
3930 N. Sheridan
At TAC QUICK, young Andy Aroonrasameruang, formerly of Banana Leaf, and his likable staff probably make it easier than anywhere else to get traditional stuff the way it's eaten in Thailand. Aside from the regular menu there's a clearly translated Thai menu available by request with almost 40 items you're not likely to encounter elsewhere without a working knowledge of the language--like a salad of shrimp, cashews, and fish maw, sort of a fishy pork rind that soaks up the flavor of the sauce like a crouton. Some were surprisingly rich and luscious for Thai cuisine, like minced chicken sweetened with thick soy sauce, garnished with crispy fried basil leaves, and served over quartered preserved duck eggs. TAC, which stands for Thai Authentic Cuisine, doesn't do breakfast, but they serve an omelet topped with pieces of chicken breast and doused with green curry that I would love to wake up to. Pad thai--which in many places has turned into the worst kind of bland, oversweetened mush--takes on another life when it's folded into an omelet. Lately Aroonrasameruang's been pushing some excellent things on his specials boards too, including a tender grilled pork neck that approaches the narcotic succulence of the best barbecue. He also does a wild-boar curry with green Thai eggplant and meaty chunks of swine rimmed with thick rinds of gorgeous fat. It would take a good week of dedicated eating to work through all the interesting things on the menu. I was lucky enough to attend a special dinner organized by a pal of Aroonrasameruang's at which the chef prepared a few things not yet put to paper, including a tamarind curry with water spinach and pork loin that he makes for staff meals and a deep-fried mud fish topped with shredded green mango, with a gape wide enough to swallow a puppy. These things aren't always available, but you might get lucky if you ask.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.