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Where Thai Meets Toy

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A sign in Wrigleyville's month-old Cozy Noodles and Rice reads: attention patrons--knives, forks, spoons, and toys are not medicine so please don't take them after your meal. But owner Suppaluk Meunprasittiveg, or Tee (his nickname as the youngest brother of three, or "tee"), admits he's not as concerned for the welfare of the silverware as he is about the thousands of small toys on the walls, tables, and shelves. "I started collecting when I was 12," says the 29-year-old. Now more than 500 Pez dispensers cover the women's bathroom walls, hundreds of windup toys line the dining room, and a Plexiglas-covered tabletop at the entrance displays dozens of plastic fast-food trinkets. "They're all either nailed or glued down just in case," Tee says. "The sign is more for fun."

Tee and his 30-year-old brother, Sulak, came to Chicago from Bangkok in the mid-90s--Sulak to study business, Tee film. "My aunt is a big film producer and my grandfather a famous actor," Tee says. "I was supposed to go back and work with her." After Sulak got his MBA from Dominican University in 1999, he was uncomfortable leaving his brother alone in the States (their older brother and mother still live in Thailand). So he opened the first Cozy, in Evanston, while Tee continued his studies.

Tee painted the interior of that restaurant canary yellow, hung colorful canvases of the Thai alphabet and shadow boxes filled with small toys on the walls, and made mosaic tabletops from broken tiles.

At first Sulak wasn't sure about Tee's decorating ideas. "All the Thai restaurants look the same--plain bathrooms, white walls, Ikea lamps," Tee says. "I had to convince my brother that this isn't the boring 90s anymore. We should have some fun. He's much more conservative than I am."

By the time Tee graduated from Columbia College--with a bachelor's degree in film and video, and a wife, Jureewan, who'd moved from Thailand to be with him--Sulak's restaurant was thriving. The brothers decided they liked the restaurant business too much to return to Thailand just yet. With Jureewan as a third partner, they leased the Wrigleyville space.

From the beginning, Tee knew exactly how he wanted it to look. There's a drawing in his leather-bound sketchbook dated April 28, 2003, precisely detailing the new interior, toys and all. He used to show his brother his drawings. "It took him time to realize that my ideas would work--it would make us different," Tee says. "Now he says, 'Don't show me, just do it.'"

Since the new Cozy opened, Tee has been working on his collections. While most of his finds come from flea markets, junk stores, and pawnshops, he's recently discovered the utility of the Internet. "I started this license plate collection at flea markets," says Tee, pointing toward Cozy's entryway, which is paneled in old tags. "But it was taking a long time. I realized I could find the entire set of 50 on eBay. It's a nice welcome to customers from any state."

Both Cozy locations have the same menu. Sulak, still the sole proprietor of the Evanston store, trains the Wrigleyville cooks and waitstaff. Entrees like red curry, stir-fried chicken or beef with basil leaves, and pad khee mao (spicy wide rice noodles with chicken, shrimp, basil, and vegetables) are as good as the food at most any neighborhood Thai place. The reasonable prices make it even more attractive; there's only one dish on the menu of 30 entrees that's over $5.95 (spicy shrimp, $7.95).

But as Tee predicted, it's the decor that makes the place special. Besides the toys, there's a shelf of vintage radios, a wall of thermoses, and a four-foot-tall illuminated ice cream cone. To pay respects to his family, Tee created a small shrine in the back room with a collection of movie posters, one of which features his grandfather in a lead role, and mostly inoperable old movie cameras. He's even covered the host stand with jewel-toned marbles and set a life-size plaster Elvis outside the door. What's he going to do when he runs out of room? "I'll just keep on collecting," he says. "But I'm starting to give away the toys to customers. That way they'll remember coming and want to come again."

Cozy Noodles and Rice is at 3456 N. Sheffield, 773-327-0100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.

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