Every Friday and Saturday night, an insiders-only karaoke jam fills Dharma Garden's pastel-colored walls with music. During a recent visit by Time Out Chicago, the crowd—mostly comprised of staff members from other Thai restaurants—burst into applause as Dharma chef and owner Vilairait Junthong, AKA "Little Aunt," grabbed the mic to sing her favorite tune, Sirintra Niyakorn's "Roo Wa kao lhok," which roughly translates to "You Treat Me Wrong".
In the more than ten years since arriving in Chicago from her hometown of Prajinburi, Little Aunt has done more than just bulk up Dharma's Thai menu. Chicago Thai restaurants Sticky and Spoon Thai have called on Junthong to outfit their menus with Northern Thai specialties such as marinated beef jerky and Chinese-influenced rice soup. She's also stayed true to a no-land-animals pledge––one reason of many why Time Out Chicago has named Dharma Garden a Critics' Pick.
Beneath the dining room's spherical hanging lights, curries and stir-fried noodles stack with veggies such as baby bok choy and chinese broccoli, as well as seafood, shrimp, and imitation meats. Already boasting one of the city's largest vegetarian menus, chefs can also alter most of their other dishes to accommodate vegans and vegetarians upon request. After finishing off a deep-fried red snapper, patrons can peruse the Thai-language menu, or request a translation into other languages such as German, Latin, and Binary.
At Guys & Wok, cooks simmer up the sweet and spicy flavors of Thailand to make classic noodle and rice dishes. Perched at the heart of Boystown, the restaurant asserts its presence with a neon teal sign and floor-to-ceiling windows stamped with a giant ampersand. Upon entering, an analog chalkboard competes with digital flat-screen TVs to relay menu options such as mango spring rolls and red, green, yellow, and panang curries. Restaurant specialties, such as the Sunset squid with chili-lime-garlic dipping sauce accompany refreshments including traditional Thai drinks and certified-organic loose teas. Facing Halsted Street, stools sidle up to countertops, offering views of the bustling street and its boisterous bar crowds. As a WiFi-equipped eatery, the restaurant invites patrons to settle in at tables, enjoy their fares, and google their second-grade teachers.
Fishing Cat Sushi Bar & Thai Cuisine doesn’t skimp on personal touches. Plump sushi rolls are placed across elaborate ceramic boats or formed into artistic representations of slithering dragons. Even the sauces are works of art, drizzled into intricate drawings, thank-you notes, and scanable bar codes to impress hungry cashiers. Behind a large sushi bar, chefs cut white fish and salmon for fresh sashimi, or for inclusion with spicy mayo in the restaurant’s signature maki rolls. Salmon and beef teriyaki dishes arrive at tables beside steaming noodles tossed with bell peppers and sweet chili sauce. While perusing the dining room’s modern artwork and low-hanging lights, diners are encouraged to enjoy a BYOB beverage, but are discouraged from distilling gin in the bathroom sink.
Sushi isn't Rock Wrap & Roll's only means of enticing passersby to abandon the sidewalk in favor of its West Lincoln Park dining room. That's not to say Chef Kit's creative but simple Japanese creations, such as the Witch roll (sweet potato tempura with smoked salmon and black tobikko) or strawberry maki (salmon and spicy tuna with slices of strawberry), lack intrigue. But Chef Itti crafts traditional Thai cuisine, with an emphasis on untraditional presentation, that carries equal weight (and claims equal space) on the menu. Try panang, a popular Thai curry with pepper, basil leaf, coconut milk, and peanut paste. Established in 2011, the BYOB restaurant strives to use the freshest ingredients.
By all accounts the dishes at Pho’s Thai Cuisine are about as spicy as edible food gets. Unless you’ve got taste buds of steel, don’t venture past “medium” when ordering the panang curry (or any other dish that gives you an option), and don’t approach “extra hot” without a fire marshal present.
The chefs at Thai Linda Cafe like meals spicy, but aim to please by customizing the menu with a choice of mild, medium, hot, or Thai hot seasonings. Lemon-hued walls reflect the glow of glass hanging lamps to evoke bright, tropical sunshine, and tables are draped in white linens to showcase colorful curry dishes studded with morsels of chicken, shrimp, and tofu. Noodle stir-fries absorb the flavors of pineapple, garlic, and mint, whereas three duck specialties crown the bird in sauces such as ginger honey. During warmer months, the kitchen serves cool cups of Thai custard and hosts a buffet of fresh air on the outdoor patio.