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.
For years, the non-Thai residents of Chicago could only look wistfully upon TAC Quick's special Thai-language menu, wondering what exotic Thai dishes the intricate foreign characters could be describing. But after a devotee translated chef Andy Aroonrasameruang's menu and posted it online, diners could suddenly order non-Americanized Thai specialties that had been previously been unheard of in Chicago—like ground chicken with preserved eggs and fish maw salad. After leaving his chef position at TAC Quick to open an eatery of his own, Andy drew up a menu that lists his authentic Thai specialties in both languages. When discussing the bilingual menu with reporters from Time Out Chicago, Andy explained, "It’s all one menu now, with both Thai and English language. This is Andy. No more secrets.” Inside the dining room at Andy's Thai Kitchen, diners raise glasses of BYOB wine over plates of raw blue crab salad and savory boat noodles. Others dunk plump crab rangoon into Andy's signature shrimp paste dip, which was described by reporters from the Chicago Tribune as "one notch spicier and two notches more funktastic than your neighborhood crab rangoon purveyor." Candles flicker on tabletops, illuminating diners' faces as they gaze out the lofty windows and ponder why clouds insist on taking the shape of their overbearing mother.
Lauded by interior designer Nate Berkus on Check, Please!, Tiparos Thai Cuisine & Sushi Bar is home to a menu of Thai noodle dishes, sushi, and pan-Asian favorites served in a cozy space. Sushi chefs prepare maki mono rolls, nigiri, and sashimi behind the long bar illuminated by a line of colorful and partially edible orb lamps. Chefs can convert many entrees into vegetarian dishes and adjust the spice level of each curry, meat, or noodle dish to please both prim and reckless tongues. Tapestries imported from Thailand brighten the eatery's exposed-brick walls, while patterned paintings grid white walls beside potted flora.
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.
Instead of dictating which wines or beers go best with their lineup of authentic Thai dishes, the chefs at Always Thai let their customers decide. Living up to their assessment as a "charming restaurant" in the Michelin Guide for the past three years, they welcome guests to bring in their own beverages to compliment anything from tongue-scorching curries to classic noodle dishes. The spicy Thai-style barbecue pork, for instance, pairs well with sweeter, less tannic wines, while more tart dishes, such as the lime chicken, go very well with Gose beers. Of course, the dishes also work with non-alcoholic drinks, too— the staff whip-up bubble teas, Thai iced coffees, and herbal teas on-site.