Amarind's Thai Restaurant | Oak Park | $$
If Arun Sampanthavivat's posh restaurant doesn't fit your budget, try this serene Thai eatery owned by chef Rangsan Sutcharit, a nine-year veteran of Arun's. The room is simple, but the menu, elegant plating, and painstakingly artistic garnishes are hard to beat at these prices. Fluffy chive dumplings are light as a cloud and served with a black soy dipping sauce redolent of molasses. The crab rolls are also intriguing: cylinders of ground crabmeat and chicken are rolled in tofu skin, briefly fried, then cut on the bias into one-inch-thick slices and set off by a sweet but piquant apricot honey sauce. Soup and noodle dishes are tasty, especially the house noodles—a large serving of delicate homemade spinach noodles with shrimp, crab, and bean sprouts tossed in a ground-chile-and-tamarind sauce. An entree not to be missed is the beef panang curry; the satiny sauce was otherworldly. —Laura Levy Shatkin 6822 W. North, 773-889-9999, amarinds.com. Lunch: Tue-Sat;. Dinner: Sun, Tue-Sat.
Aroy Thai | Ravenswood | $
I'd long ago written off Aroy Thai as just another boring, treacly sweet AmeriThai noodle slinger, but thanks to the persistent endorsement of our pals at LTHForum, I've become obsessed with its Thai Classics menu, which puts it on equal footing with Spoon, TAC Quick, and Sticky Rice in the city's pantheon of great Thai restaurants. Compared to the lighter, sweeter fare at TAC, chef-owner Sudjai Nakyaem has a richer, funkier style all her own with dishes like the sour, rich, blistering tom yam beef ball and tendon soup, a thick omelet topped with a Bolognese-like mountain of coconut milk-braised ground pig (chou-chi ground pork), or a bracing stir-fried Chinese broccoli with salty preserved fish. Best of all, with enough advance notice Nakyaem's son, Tee Kowcharoen, is often willing to take orders for off-menu dishes such as a spicy but refreshingly cool roasted eggplant and shrimp salad that lowers the mercury on a sweltering night. BYO. —Mike Sula 4656 N. Damen, 773-275-8360. Lunch, dinner: daily.
The Elephant | Forest Glen | $
It was big news when Apinya "Ann" Leevathana opened the Elephant along a busy but culinarily humdrum stretch of Devon back in 2004—there still 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 to—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, 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. BYO. —Mike Sula 5348 W. Devon, 773-467-1168. Lunch, dinner: Mon-Sat.
Me Dee Cafe | Ravenswood | $
Me Dee Cafe is an odd little place, a mere six tables squeezed in amid a wall of Thai snacks, a freezer full of mochi, and walls decorated with squabbling cartoon brats and wide-eyed, troubled-looking cows. The main dishes are inexpensive but decorously presented Ameri-Thai standards with hints of fusiony gimmickry—a noodle dish tossed with fat disks of Polish sausage, or grilled mushrooms with chihuahua cheese, or entrees garnished with raspberry and blackberry gumdrops. But Me Dee has far more to offer than that. First, there's an unusually wide assortment of sweets—in addition to jellies and teas, there are cheesecakes and mochi; a tangle of deep-fried banana, taro, and sweet potato slices; and frozen desserts including a smooth, creamy lemongrass-green tea ice cream. But I was most excited about the half-dozen varieties of Lay's brand Thai potato chips for sale (sadly, they're not in stock at the moment). Extra barbecue and Mexican barbecue don't taste radically different from their U.S. counterparts, and nori seaweed doesn't really distinguish itself. But seafood flavors like chile squid are a bit sweet and not unpleasantly fishy, and my favorite, sweet basil, builds to an incendiary burn. On top of that, Me Dee offers a late-night menu of congee with traditional sides available after 9 PM; options include a Thai omelet, stir-fried water spinach, and a spicy clam stir-fry. BYO. —Mike Sula 4805 N. Damen, 773-989-4444, medeecafe.com. Daily 4 PM-1:30 AM.
Spoon Thai | Lincoln Square | $
It's not like there's been a revolution against boring Thai food in Chicago, but there's certainly a healthy resistance, and it was born in Chai and Vanna Gumtrontip's little Lincoln Square restaurant. Spoon was the first place in the city willing to serve authentic, fully flavored Thai food to non-Thais. It began in the summer of '03 with the discovery of the Thai-language "secret menu" by a handful of obsessive chowhounds, who had it translated and began plumbing the depths of its aggressive, brilliantly seasoned dishes. Word spread, and though waitstaff sometimes had a hard time believing that non-Thais had the stomach for the real stuff (some servers still do), eventually they stopped blinking and began relinquishing funky Issan sausage, rich boat noodles, banana blossom salad, one-bite salad, incendiary papaya salad sprinkled with dried shrimp or pickled crab, and the miraculous Thai-style fried chicken (kai thawt), deeply penetrated with lemongrassy, peppery flavors and served with a tamarind dipping sauce. I'm a long way from navigating the depths of this vast repertoire, but so far some of my favorite items are naem khao thawt, a tangy, crispy fried rice salad with peanuts, cilantro, and pressed ham; phat phrik sa-taw muu sap, minced pork and bitter beans; and Issan-style minced duck salad. BYO. —Mike Sula 4608 N. Western, 773-769-1173, spoonthai.com. Lunch, dinner: seven days.
Sticky Rice Thai | North Center | $
The first time I went to the northern-Thai-focused Sticky Rice it was by chance. The half-dozen return visits in the next month? Those were intentional. A wonder cabinet of Thai food, Sticky Rice, run by a charming and very patient staff, is endlessly interesting and cheap enough to serve as your substitute kitchen. Their standard English-language menu would be novel enough, with things like deep-fried quail and shrimp on sugarcane, but thanks to a translation of the lengthy Thai-language menu, the options are almost inexhaustible. I've only excavated a tiny quadrant of both menus, but among the standouts are banana blossom salad, Burmese-style curry, duck curry with lychees, and northern Thai larb (made with ground pork and intestine). The only real problem with Sticky Rice is that it's so hard to relinquish these known pleasures for unknowns. But be bold: you can't spend your whole life eating jellyfish salad, after all. Also, with dishes like fried worms and ant-egg omelet, Sticky Rice is your Chicagoland insect-eating destination. BYO. —Nicholas Day 4018 N. Western, 773-588-0133, stickyricethai.com. Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Mon-Sat till 11.
TAC Quick | Wrigleyville | $
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. Aroonrasameruang pushes 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. BYO. —Mike Sula 3930 N. Sheridan, 773-327-5253, tacquick.net. Lunch, dinner: Sun-Mon, Wed-Satur.
Thai Pastry | Uptown | $
A display case at the front of this cheerful room presents exquisite pastries created by chef-owner Aumphai ("Add") Kusub: pink-and-green rice vermicelli served with a sweet coconut-milk sauce, jewel-toned mini gelatin molds, and a variety of beautiful cakes. The menu is just as enticing, full of offerings like baby egg rolls with minced shrimp; mee krob, crispy vermicelli in a sweet plum sauce; and kuchai, pillows of freshly rolled rice noodles stuffed with chive greens in a sweet and spicy vinegar sauce. A showstopper from the back of the menu is the clam curry—lots of perfectly steamed shelled clams with long, flat strips of sour bamboo in a red curry coconut-milk broth served in a hot ceramic pot. There's also an array of whole fish like red snapper. BYO. —Laura Levy Shatkin 4925 N. Broadway, 773-784-5399, thaipastry.com. Lunch, dinner: daily. Open late: Fri & Sat till 11.