A quick glance at Thai Sookdee's menu shows that many Thai staples are well represented, from pad Thai to crab Rangoon. Closer inspection, however, reveals some unexpected surprises. Peanut sauce coats piles of steamed broccoli, a homemade sesame-ginger dipping sauce accompanies gyoza dumplings stuffed with pork and veggies, and homemade duck sauce tops roasted duck tossed with steamed greens and pineapples. Thai Sookdee's chefs also craft eight curry dishes, two of which are original recipes. To counterbalance the heat of these curries, guests can order a creamy Thai iced coffee or politely ask to use the restaurant’s fire extinguisher.
The chefs at Dozika fuse Asian flavors from multiple regions, including Japan, Thailand, and Korea. Spider maki roll combines soft-shell crab and masago together with avocado, cucumber, and unagi sauce, and sashimi and vegetarian rolls provide colorful additions to boards of sushi. Noodle, curry, and fried rice dishes abound for diners looking to sample something new or finally learn how to spell “umami.”
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.
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.