A modest but significant burst in new, noteworthy Thai restaurants lit up Chicago over the last year and a half, with small, independent operators offering relatively uncompromising food compared to the oversweetened, dumbed-down Ameri-Thai standards much of the city is used to. They're not pioneers. They're walking in the footsteps of the folks behind Spoon, Aroy Thai, and Andy's Thai Kitchen, among others. In some cases they're veterans of those kitchens. You know all about Rainbow, perhaps the first of this new generation. But interesting and uncommon food can now be found at Paula's Thai Kitchen in Lincoln Park, Tom Yum Cafe in Lakeview, and West Town's JJ Thai Street Food. Uptown's Immm Rice & Beyond is a unique-to-Chicago model specializing in khao rad gang, or rice and curry dishes (the term "curry" here used loosely), arrayed on steam tables from which the customer chooses a single dish or combination.
Those who remember the late, great Thai Grocery know there was a similar setup in the rear of the store, and the shuttered Lao restaurant Sabai Dee operated under the same principle. Think of it as the Thai version of the south's "meat and three," with the rice standing in—as it always should—as the most important part of the meal.
The partners behind Immm, which is a Thai expression of satiation, are Dew Suriyawan, 30, who took over the venerable Spoon Thai in 2012 with his sister, and Noon Tosakulwong, 35, who daylights as a programmer. The pair met seven years ago when Suriyawan took a job in Tosakulwong's brother's sushi-noodle restaurant Jaiyen.
Immm specializes in street food, of which khao rad gang is a significant category. In its purest form it provides Thais with inexpensive fast food at all hours of the day, particularly for takeout. Immm veers from convention in that it offers a variety of som tam, papaya salad, a la carte, with a choice of add-ins such as fermented crab, grilled pork neck, or preserved egg. They're also doing a few noodle soups and made-to-order dishes, or aharn tam sang. In addition, Suriyawan is planning to offer a rotating selection of kreung jim, or pungent dips meant to be eaten with rice, boiled or raw vegetables, pork rinds, and/or fried fish. That would be groundbreaking for Chicago, but a significant departure from traditional khao rad gang.
As it stands Suriyawan goes shopping each morning in the markets around Broadway and Argyle and creates a daily menu usually of nine or ten dishes based on what he finds. Supply realities demand that some of these items repeat themselves, but usually there are at least one or two new things to be had each day.
One dish that will never go off the menu is gaeng tai pla, a southern Thai vegetable curry that as the menu's description asserts is made with fermented fish guts. Those three words are capitalized as fair warning to the squeamish, but Suriyawan says many of his Thai customers come specifically for this dish. And with good reason. Tai pla, the key ingredient, which he orders from Los Angeles, is a murky, pungent black brew that packs an olfactory wallop straight out of the jar. But in the curry, mitigated by white rice, it softens in intensity yet still provides a deep, funky umami bottom end.
And that's the great thing about Immm: much of the food—in all categories—is fearlessly seasoned across the spectrum of the Thai flavor rainbow. One variant of papaya salad, som tum puu pla rah—pounded with bits of salty black preserved crab and the fermented-fish-and-rice-powder seasoning pla rah—is one of the most powerfully funky versions I've come across, the deep oceanic soulfulness of the pla rah in stark contrast to the blazing, acidic lime and chile burn. Meanwhile, the boat noodle soup kuay tiew ruea, typically spiked with a bit of pig's blood in other local restaurants, here is perhaps the most ensanguined I've ever encountered, its iron-rich minerality laying the foundation for sweetness and spice.
Milder dishes can have a homey, mellow sweetness imparted by palm sugar, such as pa lo, pork belly and whole eggs braised in a sauce redolent of five-spice, or curries, like roasted duck gaeng phe ped yang, bobbing with lychee and cherry tomatoes, or the yellow Indian-influenced massaman curry with potatoes and bone-in chicken pieces.
Suriyawan employs three chefs, one from northeastern Thailand, one from Bangkok, and one from the south, so interpretations may vary too. One day you might find pad prik normai, julienned bamboo shoots stir-fried with chicken bits, and on the next, pad prik normai mhooo sub, tossed with ground pork, the bamboo shoots cut in wider batons.
Still, there's a uniform rusticity to a lot of these dishes that comes about in part by the time they spend settling on the steam table. As with any buffet, it's important to find the sweet spot. Suriyawan's menu is posted on Facebook each morning, but arrive too early and some dishes may not be ready; show up too late and they may be gone.
Another aspect of the steam-table model that differs from the older Thai restaurants around town is its general transparency. Servers are forthcoming with advice on which combinations work well together, and they're eager to dispense tasting samples, which makes it simple to get a grip on the wealth of delicious possibilities that lay before you. v