The allure of street food for people who didn't grow up in a place where it flourished is largely psychological. For tourists it's not just the affordable, practical, utilitarian way of feeding oneself that it is for locals, but a cheap and easy way to feel like you belong—or at least identify—with a foreign culture at its realest. Somehow one is convinced this food tastes best in the open heat and exhaust of a thrumming metropolis.
Nowhere is this romantic fantasy undercut so effectively as it is in Thailand's capital, Bangkok, where sprawling shopping-mall food courts often invite famous street specialists indoors to cook and sell their signatures in air-conditioned comfort. You can stroll among the stalls of Pier 21 on the fifth floor of the Terminal 21 shopping center sampling a splendid array of regionally diverse dishes and never break a sweat.
Chicago's recent flowering of downtown food halls looks a lot like this (except, of course, if any of our street food specialists got too famous the city would hound them out of existence rather than offer them an indoor kiosk). I didn't consider this tenuous comparison until Pink Salt opened in Fulton Galley earlier this summer, promising Isan food from northeastern Thailand, a region known for spicy meat-and-toasted-rice salads (larb), sticky fermented sausage (sai krok), and smoky grilled chicken (gai yang) served with papaya salad and sticky rice.
Palita Sriratana isn't from Isan, but growing up she spent summers in Bangkok's suburban Mueang Nonthaburi District, cooking at the side of her aunts, learning the dishes her late grandmother had handed down. A few years ago the Bloomington-raised former health care worker turned to food blogging and dinner parties to help move on from a dead-end career and rekindle the magic of childhood.Of the five vendors established in Fulton Galley, she's the only one who, apart from a couple stages, has never worked in a professional kitchen (much less on a sidewalk). But her sous chef Dylan Heath, formerly of Cafe Marie-Jeanne and Cellar Door Provisions, has, and together they're executing a relatively specialized and concise menu that Sriratana says is "roughly two-thirds Isan."
That difference is in part due to the fried chicken tenders that headline her menu. Originally, Sriratana planned to specialize in soy-brined and spatchcocked whole roasted gai yang, but Dennis Bernard, her Fulton Galley neighbor at Fairview, had already cornered the market on whole rotisserie chicken, and executing bone-in fried chicken would take too long to accommodate the majority-lunch crowds at the food hall. The tenders—marinated in white pepper, lightly battered in rice flour, and showered with crunchy fried shallots and pink micro-amaranth threads—are served with Shark-brand sriracha, a salad of lightly pickled vegetables, and a side of sticky rice. They're a little soft, and not particularly crunchy, but they're fine if you're toting along ambitious toddlers. Sriratana views them as a gateway to Thai cuisine for the West Loop uninitiated, whose neighborhood, oddly, suffers from a relative dearth of it.
But it's the next item on the menu that really cements her ambition: larb gai is a minty minced chicken salad with piercing acidity and spice for which Sriratana cuts no corners, toasting and grinding rice powder in-house and using the appropriate culantro, aka sawtooth coriander, rather than cilantro, all bedded on virtus radicchio grown by Indiana's Green Acres Farm. She says this is the dish she regularly prepared for her own school lunches as a child—she launched her cooking blog, Hi Palita, with the recipe—and it's the dish she could hang a shingle on if she wanted to become a true specialist.
There's also a rotating satay of the day, soy-and-brown-sugar-caramelized moo ping (grilled pork shoulder) or lemongrass-soy-marinated chicken thigh with a simple peanut sauce. Her som tam could be rounded out with a bit more fish sauce, but if you prefer your papaya salad with more depth, there's an option to add a wedge of salted duck egg.
Snackier bites like the none-too-sweet tamarind-and-soy-glazed beef jerky finished with the eponymous Himalayan pink salt or the deep-fried black-sesame-studded baby bananas are probably Fulton Galley's best cocktail accompaniments (there's a well-stocked bar across the hall), unless you're sticking to the chrysanthemum-mint tea with a slice of dried dragon fruit.
In the realm of fried bites Sriratana's rotating vegan fritter option by rights ought to be Pink Salt's other major crowd-pleaser: recently, shredded nests of zucchini and makrut lime leaf, fried in a green-curry-infused rice-flour batter and dusted with dehydrated lime powder.
But Sriratana doesn't let a narrow menu focus restrain her ambitions: on Thursdays and Fridays a curry pops up (recently oxtail), and occasionally off-menu items appear, such as a lemongrass chicken version of the northern pork sausage sai ua, which she also features on her catering menu along with jackfruit sugar cookies and the Isan-style whole roasted chickens she intended to open with (she'll prepare these to order by Instagram request with a few days' notice). All of this is advance work for the brick-and-mortar stand-alone restaurant she hopes to open in a year's time, for which she envisions a more rigorous approach to Isan food, including various game-meat iterations of her signature larb, such as duck, boar, bison, or alligator.
"Larb is just a style of dish," she says. "It can be anything." v