Any discussion of Thai food inevitably gets bogged down in the basics: pad thai, green curry, and fish cakes. While the food savvy may talk of spice levels and coconut milk, even they often have little understanding of the balance that true Thai food is all about. Take pad thai for example. Most restaurants serve an uninspired combination of cooked rice noodles with bits of tofu or chicken, maybe a few peanuts, and an overly sweet sauce binding it together. The classic dish, as whipped up on giant, flat woks on the streets of Bangkok, typically contains rice noodles cooked with a dash of sugar and some salty nam pla (fish sauce), along with tiny cubes of firm tofu, dried shrimp, pickled radish, crisp bean sprouts, sharp green onions, and an egg to hold it all together. Classic garnishes include crushed peanuts for crunch and a wedge of fresh lime to brighten the dish with tart citrus. "Most Thai restaurants don't do it right,"' says Aumphai Kusub. "They'll put in cabbage, or make the noodle crispy... it's not supposed to be that way."
The pad thai at Kusub's five-month-old restaurant, Thai Pastry, is sublime. But considering the number of years Kusub's spent in the trenches, that's not surprising. She came to Chicago from Bangkok in 1969 to study business administration at Northeastern Illinois University. She got the restaurant bug after waitressing at a local steak house and later managing another restaurant. "I liked the money I was making," she says.
She went back home as often as she could, studying food and pastry preparation in Bangkok. Fruit and vegetable carving is a high art in Thailand, and Kusub enjoyed decorating food and giving it to friends as gifts. Back in Chicago, she opened a place called Thai Garden and ran it for five years in the mid-80s until most of her family--who had been helping out--moved back to Thailand. She sold the restaurant and for the last decade or so she's been waiting tables and cooking at other Thai restaurants, like Always Thai on West Irving Park and Noodles in the Pot on North Halsted.
Kusub had been looking for a good location for a new restaurant for nearly a year when she realized the Uptown neighborhood where she lived was missing something. "There were lots of Vietnamese and Laotian restaurants here [around Argyle Street] and I figured this was the right location for me ... there were no Thai restaurants yet." The name may imply dessert, but the menu offers plenty of savory dishes, whose prices hover around $ 10.
The tod-mun, or fish cakes, contain tiny shards of kaffir lime leaf, giving the circular patties of fried pike an herbal flavor not typically found in this common appetizer. Chive dumplings, made with both rice and tapioca flour, are delicately flavored with garlic and coriander. Thai Pastry also often serves two items most places around town don't: ha mok (fish casserole) and kao kib pak maow (tiny rice flour dumplings). The former is a coconut-milk- and curry-laden casserole steamed in a wrap of banana leaf; the latter, bite-sized morsels of radish, peanut, ground pork, and sugar.
Kusub makes all of her curries--too often limited at other restaurants to just chicken and beef and often from a canfrom scratch and pairs them with eclectic ingredients. Curried clams with bamboo shoots, for example, redefine the term "hot and sour": while a dose of steamed white rice provides temporary relief, their overpowering heat could be too much for even a seasoned veteran of the cuisine. Many of the fish curries are served whole, on top of steaming clay pots that continue to cook the meat and vegetables while a friendly server fillets if you wish. "It's the same as eating in Bangkok," Kusub says. "We have a lot of Thai people coming in here."
Surprisingly, pastries aren't the restaurant's strong suit. But they do maintain a permanent position in a glass case at the front entrance. Dine-in customers can try the lod chong, a sweet, heady soup of tapioca flour, rice flour, coconut milk, and sugarcane syrup. The soup gets its green hue from the prized pandanus leaf, an aromatic treat imported from Bangkok (and available locally at the Thai grocery across the street). The soup is cooled by chunks of ice that float on top. Voon see is a popular dessert among Thai children; it's a simple blend of sugar and agar-agar (gelatin) flavored with jasmine, dyed with food coloring, cooked, and cooled in tiny cup-shaped molds. Voon kati may be one of the best ways to cool off the fires still burning softly at the back of your mouth. Really two sweets in one--a parfait of sweetened agar-agar on the bottom and a mixture of agar-agar and coconut milk on the top, dusted with sugar and salt--it's a creamy, soft-textured treat that immediately transports you to the tropical climes of southeast Asia.
Thai Pastry is at 4925 N. Broadway, 773-784-5399.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.