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.
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.
Chi Tung began as a small Chinese restaurant in 1988, but has since evolved into a 200-seat pan-Asian kingdom that houses a hibachi steak house as well as a lounge area. In the midst of several growth spurts, owners Jinny and Dan Zhao have trained their focus on upholding high culinary standards. They parceled their cooking team into three separate kitchens, each one dedicated to producing authentic Chinese, Thai, or Japanese food. In these highly specialized quarters, cooks prepare hundreds of menu items, such as mongolian beef, shrimp pad thai, and chicken satay. Although the cooks work at a steady clip, they adhere to traditional recipes and techniques when blending custom sauces and handcrafting more than 100 types of sushi.
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.