Asian Harbor serves a blend of Japanese and Thai dishes in a sleek, modern dining room. Rich Thai spices turn curries the same deep-orange hue as the walls, which glow with light from hanging cylindrical lamps. A neon-lined sushi bar dishes out more than 20 specialty rolls. And a lengthy list of cooling cocktails, sake, and wine balances hot dishes on the menu such as Spicy Basil, an entree of sautéed meat, snow peas, fresh basil, chili, and bell peppers. Unlike libraries beefing with Confucius, the wok section of the menu includes several Chinese classics, such as general tso's chicken and egg foo yong.
To Yes Asia Cafe owners Nancy and Tiger Huynh, their business in America is the end of a long journey that began with their families' attempts to escape to the US from Vietnam. Despite multiple tries each year, Nancy's family was always turned back. "There were scary moments," she writes on the café's website, "and I'm glad it's over." Tiger's family was luckier, drifting into a safe harbor after seven days in a tiny boat.
Today at Yes Asia Cafe, both Huynhs celebrate the cuisine of their childhoods with a menu of traditional pan-Asian and Vietnamese dishes. Like a poorly calibrated compass, banh mi sandwiches fuse East and West, stuffing crusty french bread rolls with fillings such as curry chicken and cured pork. Succulent morsels of barbecue pork and grilled beef mingle with cilantro, mint, pickled veggies, and peanuts in rice and noodle bowls. And an impressive drink menu cleanses palates with jasmine teas and jackfruit smoothies.
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.