Thailand began its culinary conquest of Chicago more than 20 years ago, starting innocuously with a few storefronts on the north and northwest sides. A place in Andersonville called simply the Thai Restaurant may have been the city's first, though its output was all quite mild and Westernized.
Today there are more than 100 Thai restaurants in the city and close to 200 in the metropolitan area, attesting to the remarkable popularity of the cuisine. Which is all the more remarkable considering the tiny Thai population here: 1,880 in the city and 2,358 in the suburbs, according to the 1990 census. They are Chicago's smallest Asian group, coming in behind Filipinos, Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and even Cambodians, who outnumbered them by 40 the year of the census. Which also means that a huge percentage of Thai are in the restaurant business, like the Greeks and Chinese of a half century ago.
Now that the novelty has worn off and the selection is so wide, we can make some serious critical judgments, though picking the best these days, like arguing pizza, can lead to bloodshed. Among my favorites through the years have been the Thai Room on Western near Irving, founded by the Ratana family in 1980, and the various restaurants founded by Art Lee six years later--especially his Thai Touch at Kedzie and Lawrence, started only four years ago. Both Lee and the Ratanas opened additional new places late last year while keeping the older ones going.
Lee, one of the original owners of the now-shuttered and sorely missed River Kwai on State near Hubbard, started a second Thai Touch last fall on Halsted Street's hot restaurant row in Lakeview, which runs from North to Belmont. Like the first, it's small but handsomely appointed with imports selected on annual trips back to his native Bangkok, where the first order of business is checking out the latest recipes. Yes, like many of the world's cuisines, Thai cuisine is continuously evolving and being influenced by international cooking trends.
Like the majority of his fellow Asian restaurateurs, Lee's initial training was not in the kitchen. He was a law-school graduate when he came here in 1976 and got his first restaurant job washing dishes. He worked his way up, becoming catering manager for a country club and holding similar positions with the Marriott hotels. He's a self-taught chef, like Chanpen Ratana of the Thai Room, who came here as a nurse with only the culinary training given by her mother. The two are clearly among the city's best Thai chefs.
At the new Thai Touch on Halsted you'll find basically the same 68-dish menu as at the Lawrence Avenue restaurant: a host of familiar items dotted with a few novel ones, some strong Chinese influence, and a great deal of care given even the most routine dishes.
The chicken satay strips are cut a shade thicker than most and show the effect of potent marination; you hardly need the peanut sauce and cucumber condiment to get a load of flavor ($4.95). "Crab in a bag" is an offbeat rendition of stuffed wonton: a delicate mix of crab and shrimp about the size of a large marble is encased in a light, very thin pastry "sack" and deep-fried to perfect crispness, giving wonderful texture while letting the full flavor of the filling come through ($5.95).
Chicken wings are stuffed with an excellent-textured shrimp mousse, cooked to a slightly crisp exterior, and served with a sweet-and-sour chili sauce ($5.50). The salad known as som tom is made the authentic way, a julienne of green papaya--not carrots--in a spicy, hot dressing of lime and fish sauce ($4.75). Cashew chicken--a fiery dish with nuts, mushrooms, and snow peas--shows a Chinese influence and packs much flavor with its heat ($7.50). Lemongrass shrimp is another well-spiced winner that doesn't overwhelm the shellfish taste ($8.95).
I absolutely love the full flavor of the garlic pork, slices of grilled tenderloin redolent of a heady marinade ($6.95). My only mild objection is that the pork slices had to be cut up bite by bite; it would be wonderful in smaller chunks. But that's not much of a problem in an otherwise remarkably satisfying dinner.
There's much the same sense of satisfaction at the Thai Borrahn, right next to the Museum of Contemporary Art on East Ontario, one flight up. This is an elegant, almost lavish spot featuring several of those tearoom-style tables where you sit at floor level (after removing your shoes) with your legs down in a well, reclining, if you wish, on wedge-shaped pillows.
The Ratanas took this place over late last summer, retaining the original name, which means "old-fashioned." Chanpen does the cooking most of the time, but also shuttles between the original Thai Room on Western and the Thai Room II, on Huron east of State, another second floor done in contemporary blond wood, which opened in 1986 to terrific reviews.
The Thai Borrahn menu departs somewhat from that of the first two, focusing on seafood and also reflecting other Asian cuisines in dishes such as shrimp or squid tempura ($5.95), which includes some mixed veggies deep-fried in the batter, though they're served with a tangy sweet-sour sauce rather than the typical Japanese soy-lemon dip. With a few daily specials, you have more than 70 courses to choose from, including the special fish fillet of the day--maybe snapper, maybe salmon--slathered with a thick, potent, vegetable-based green curry sauce ($8.95).
One of my favorite Thai starters is fish cakes, a crisply fried, dazzlingly spiced fish pate that should be slightly chewy but too often emerges rubbery or greasy. Here, accompanied by a tart cucumber salad with ground peanuts, they exhibit all of the virtues and none of the flaws ($5.50).
A delicate, highly unusual appetizer was the fried shrimp roll, composed of a whole shelled shrimp encased in the fold of a circular sheet of tofu--looking for all the world like a quesadilla ($5.95). A plum-based sauce pointed up the flavors. Nice job too with the standard hot-and-sour lemongrass-shrimp soup, which serves four to six; its broth, laden with plump shrimp and full-bodied straw mushrooms, stopped just short of bringing tears to my eyes ($8.95).
Staying with the hot stuff, I dug into a thick and zesty Panang-style curry of pork, a mahogany-colored potion studded with meat and chunks of tiny Thai eggplant ($7.50). The coconut-milk base helps mellow and round out the fire of this classic.
A vegetarian counterpoint was a dish I don't recall on other Thai menus, a mix of three wild mushrooms and a crunchy "cloud ear" fungus simmered in a light, slightly saline sauce studded with tender baby ears of corn ($7.50). Fresh shrimp and scallops benefited from being immersed in a moderately peppery garlic sauce punctuated with scallion chunks that enhanced their flavor ($9.95).
Chanpen and Lee both spend a lot of time at all their restaurants, assuring quality remains intact--which is not always guaranteed when good chefs expand to more than one location. So far so good for both.
Thai Touch, 2628 N. Halsted, is open 4:30 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, 4:30 to 11:30 Friday and Saturday, and 4:30 to 9:30 Sunday. Carryouts available; call 404-1160. Thai Borrahn, 247 E. Ontario, is open 11 to 10 Monday through Thursday, 11 to 11 Friday, 4 to 11 Saturday, and 4 to 10 Sunday. Carryouts available here too; call 642-1385.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.