Chicago is a city of neighborhoods, and much of what makes the city so special, is the ability of immigrant populations to coalesce and form enclaves. One of the delicious results of that herd mentality is the profusion of mom-and-pop restaurants. One of the greatest parts of my job is highlighting these independent businesses, often located in areas like Little India (Devon. Ave.), Little Saigon (Argyle St.), Koreatown (Lawrence Ave.) and Chinatown. It seems Arun Sampanthavivat had had enough of hearing about his Asian counterparts.
Over the weekend, the chef/owner of Arun’s – known more for its intricate vegetable carvings, ornate Thai artwork and elegant surroundings – opened what he and his business partners hope will become ground zero for Chicago’s own Thai Town. Taste of Thai Town sounds like a weekend festival, but it is, in fact, a former police station headquarters Sampanthavivat has helped transform into a Thai community center and restaurant. They’ve spent the better part of seven years working on it, and the relief was pretty evident on their faces at Friday’s Grand Opening.
“This is going to become the focal point for the Thai community, and will hopefully bring other businesses here to the neighborhood,” a visibly giddy Sampanthavivat said. Perhaps because now he gets to play in the same sandbox with the more popular, casual Thai restaurants like Rainbow, Aroy and Sticky Rice, that have eclipsed him in terms of media mentions and Instagram-worthy acclaim.
On Friday, Thai dancing and music gave way to a mini-feast, prepared by some of the cooks from Arun’s restaurant. Unlike the dainty, meticulous food often served at his restaurant (which is too often toned down for the customers paying $100 a head for a tasting menu there), the noodles, curries and small snacks were more reminiscent of what you’d find on the streets of Bangkok. A large Noodle Bar up front features several rice noodle-based dishes, most studded with lemongrass, galangal and fresh cilantro. Four types of som tom – my favorite crunchy green papaya salad with fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar, not to mention Thai chilies and green beans – also feature salted crab, sashimi and the traditional, with dried shrimp.
The exciting thing is going to be seeing several other Thai restaurants begin to open in this part of Albany Park over the next few years, as spaces become available for rent. Maybe now we’ll begin to see regional Thai cooking more often; perhaps specialists just focusing in on one thing like desserts or sausages or drinks. I for one, can’t wait. Taste of Thai Town is open from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m. each day.