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Restaurant Tours: a cheap but elegant Thai

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Of all the countries I've visited, Thailand has got to be the eatingest. Thais eat "when the mood strikes," as one guidebook puts it. Vendors hawk peanuts, grilled and stir-fried meats, noodles, cut-up fruits, cooked and raw denizens of the briny deep from mollusks and crustaceans to finny varieties, pancakes, porridge, and when all else fails, paper-wrapped candies. Anything that sprouts, walks, flies, swims and, near the Burmese border at least, crawls, is fair game for mincing, broiling, steaming, sauteing, or just dipping into hot sauce: "Waste not, want not" is elevated from a challenge to an art.

Dire warnings from guides and guidebooks notwithstanding, it is difficult not to be tempted by the smells and sheer abundance of offerings. One afternoon, in a fashionable section of Bangkok, we found ourselves providing amusement to passersby as we succumbed to the seductive blandishments of grilled green-lipped mussels. Eating them was a two-person operation. In one hand I held a paper bag full of hot bivalves, and in the other a plastic baggie filled with chili sauce, while my partner pried open shells, dipped the plump and slippery mollusks into the sauce, and alternately popped them into my mouth and his. What was lacking in ambience was more than made up in flavor--they were the juiciest, freshest mussels we had ever eaten. And while I might be said to have been left holding the baggie, so to speak, it was an experience I would happily repeat.

Alas, green-lipped mussels are a Pacific delicacy, and though occasionally available in the midwest, much too expensive for most of Chicago's Thai restaurants, which, if they have only one thing in common other than geographical origin and liberal use of hot peppers, would have to be price. Thai eateries are, for the most part, cheap, providing a dollar-to-mouthful ratio that is hard to beat.

Ten years ago, Thai restaurants were relatively rare in Chicago. Now there are dozens all over the city. Most are small, family-owned storefronts with catch-as-catch-can decor and service. One that is several cuts above the run-of-the-mill and seems to have gone unnoticed is Pattaya. Its prices are on a par with the rest, but its varied and well-executed menu, above average ambience, and central location make it an exceptional value.

Pattaya is a storefront, but one that borders on elegance. Mini blinds separate diners from the outside world, while pale green walls, carpeting, well-spaced tables, and linen tablecloths and napkins create an atmosphere of civilized comfort. A pentahedral blond wood bar on one side of the room and a bi-level ceiling lend some visual interest, as do a couple of ceiling fans and Thai rubbings on the walls. Too dim lighting makes menu reading a strain, but the absence of noise makes Pattaya one of the few places in the city in which dinner conversation at normal volume is possible.

Although the menu here, as in many restaurants in Thailand, lists appetizers as a separate category, traditionally meals are not divided into courses as they are in the West. Only desserts, generally fruits and sweets, are served separately. Soup, fish, meats, curries, vegetables, and rice are placed on the table all at once or as they are prepared. The diner places a mound of rice on his or her plate, then adds a sampling of each dish to the central mound. Contrary to popular misconception, Thais do not use chopsticks, but rather forks and spoons. Pattaya, however, like most of its Chicago counterparts, provides chopsticks for its clientele.

There are 52 items on the menu including four desserts. We began with Satay ($4.75), skewered strips of grilled pork, beef, and chicken served with peanut-butter sauce, one of the better versions around. All three meats were full-flavored and moist, the sauce smooth, nutty, and mildly spicy. Po Pia Sod ($3.25), spring rolls densely packed with sausage, scrambled egg, and vegetables topped with a sweet, tangy sauce, are among the best in the city, shells properly elastic, the sauce highlighting rather than overwhelming. Goew Nam Goong ($2.95), shrimp-stuffed wonton soup, featured fresh-tasting shrimp inside plump, chewy wontons afloat in a tart peppery broth full of escarole and cilantro. Yum Nua ($5.95) should make both beef and salad lovers happy--slices of charcoal-broiled beef reposing on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by slices of onion, tomato, cucumber, and hot peppers, drizzled with a light lime juice dressing.

Three seafood dishes deserve special mention. Pla Muek Sod Sai Tod Grob ($4.50), squid, first steamed then stuffed with savory ground pork and fried, is excellent. The sweet hot-and-sour sauce served alongside perfectly complements the dish. Even better is Hoi Tod ($6.25)--fresh mussels dipped in a batter of rice flour and egg and fried, served on a bed of bean sprouts and cilantro. The mussels were fresh and juicy inside their chewy egg coating while a tomato chili sauce that accompanied them seemed almost superfluous. A special one night, Gan Goong ($7.75), came in a close third: red shrimp curry with green beans, bamboo shoots, hot pepper, kiefer leaves (a kind of mint), basil, and coconut milk. While the dish itself was delicious, it was served on a plate rather than in a pot or bowl as is traditional. As a result, the sauce formed a pool on the bottom of the plate rather than bathing the rest of the ingredients. The dish, too, could have been spicier. Pattaya errs, when it does, on the side of timidity. Those who like it hot had better speak up.

Chicken lovers can choose from seven offerings, two of which we sampled. Gai Yang ($5.25), half a chicken cut into serving pieces and grilled, was succulent, its flavor elusively sweet and smoky. Gai Pad Bi-Kaprow ($5.75), chopped white meat stir-fried with hot pepper and basil leaf, could have used a bit more basil and a bit more heat, though the chicken itself was fresh and tender. The only disappointment among the dishes we tried was Sen Yai Rad Na ($4.75), rice noodles stir-fried with beef and broccoli--an anemic gravy did nothing for the overdone meat and vegetable.

For dessert, Thai custard ($1.50) stands out, a creamy, grainy concoction made from taro root, egg, and coconut milk topped with a few strands of caramelized onion. Rambutan, lychee, and longang ($1.50), tropical fruits in syrup, though canned, were pleasantly soothing.

Thai iced coffee ($1.25), rich, dark, and sweet, topped with half-and-half, could have made a dessert all by itself. The tea served at Pattaya, reddish orange with sweet and tart overtones, is grown in the north of Thailand near Chiang Mai. Cocktails, wines by the glass or bottle, and beer are available.

Pattaya, 114 W. Chicago, is open 11:30 AM to 10 PM Monday through Friday and 4:30 to 10 PM Saturday and Sunday. All major credit cards are accepted. Call 944-3753 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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