At Lai Thai Restaurant, daintily named appetizers often turn out to be savory, fried surprises. Golden bags, for example, are really wonton skins filled with crab and cream cheese. Likewise, the angel wings are stuffed chicken wings, battered and brimming with bean thread noodles, veggies, and more ground chicken. The menu’s entrees typically bear more transparent titles: spicy catfish, fried rice, and pad thai all constitute popular specialties. Five types of curries—from panang coconut to pineapple shrimp—quell spice cravings, and the sweet almond beef mixes almonds, water chestnuts, and onions in a brown sauce, allowing for a more satisfyingly crunch than eating uncooked noodles out of impatience.
Chefs imbue Zakuro Thai Sushi Cuisine's intimate dining room with the aromas of traditional Thai noodle dishes, fried rice, and seven types of curry. For dinner, they craft specialties such as deep-fried soft-shell crab with basil sauce, served with vegetables and a choice of white, brown, or fried rice. At the sushi counter, chefs hand-roll maki including the Hollywood, layering spicy tuna and shrimp tempura inside kelp or soybean paper and topping the bundle with fried onions and seared Cajun albacore. The softly lit restaurant boasts wood floors, Asian figurines, and tall, twig-like accents that are lit from beneath, casting spindly shapes on the walls like two saplings making shadow puppets.
Meals at Thipi Thai are all about indulging the senses. Its assortment of classic Thai comfort foods deftly balance sour, sweet, and salty flavors, while intensely aromatic ingredients such as curry paste and basil tickle noses. After warming starters such as traditional tom kha kai soup, diners move onto entrees of fried rice tossed with shrimp and calamari, or duck in red curry sauce. These dishes can run the gamut from mild to intensely spiced, but guests always have final say as to how much heat their taste buds can handle.
The restaurant's sensory atmosphere extends beyond the menu. Take the eye-catching dining room, for instance?its crimson walls are adorned with gilt-framed artwork, while saffron archways frame the umbrellas that dangle upside-down from the ceiling like chandeliers.
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.