For a long time, Mexican food in America was mostly a Tex-Mex hybrid featuring hefty doses of monterey jack and sour cream on deep-fried flour tortillas stuffed with meat. Not necessarily the stuff you’d find people eating in Mexico. It took pioneers such as Diana Kennedy and Rick Bayless to really open up the world of nuanced moles and hot griddled tortillas made from fresh masa.
Today, there’s a similar problem with Thai food. What many restaurants pass off as “real” Thai is usually a pan-Asian-American assortment of gloppy sweet noodle dishes and huge helpings of crab rangoon. In Chicago, there are a few spots—such as Spoon and Tac Quick—that offered fiery jungle curries (without coconut milk) and fermented sausages, the kind of stuff you were more likely to eat if you were traveling through northern Thailand. But these dishes were only available on “secret” menus for Thai regulars, which foodies only recently stumbled upon. Sala Bua, a new Thai restaurant in Chinatown, does away with the secret menus, offering some of the dishes the more authentic spots do straight-up.
The story: Owner Stanley Liem is Chinese and his wife, Nuchsara Katekaew, is Thai; his decision to forgo the secret menu route that many of their competitors employ was a deliberate one. “My wife and I eat at a lot of Thai places and most of them won’t serve you the real dishes unless you’re Thai,” Liem said. “We wanted to make the real dishes available to everyone.”
The scene: Light-colored wooden lanterns and rough-hewn wainscoting topped with white fabric panels that diffuse a soft, flickering light made me feel like I was dining on a picturesque patio. I didn’t see any fellow diners toting in beer or wine, but the restaurant is BYOB until a liquor license arrives in a few weeks. There’s also an assortment of non-alcoholic drinks, including a freshly carved coconut ($4) that’s tapped so you can sip the refreshing sweet milk.
Likes: Crab rangoon ($5) and pad thai ($8) are still on the menu for those expecting them, but I skipped ’em in favor of some of my favorite Thai standards to see if this spot was the real deal. The sai-krok-e-san ($7), fermented pork-and-rice sausage, was moist, tangy and spicy. Though it was not as funky as the stuff you might find at Spoon, it was very good. Filled with fiery red chilis, fragrant roasted peanuts, crisp green beans, bright lime juice-tossed papaya and crunchy dried shrimp, the som tum thai ($7) or papaya salad, was a bowl of flavor fireworks. There’s also the sticky delight that is karee-poo (market price; $45 on my visit), or dungeness crab tossed in a sauce of stir-fried curry, egg and crab roe. The rich roe thickened the curry sauce into a custard-like texture, while the crab tasted of sweetness and the sea. I’ve had somewhat similar dishes at Chinatown restaurants where they pull the crab from a dining room fish tank and it still didn’t taste this fresh. It might seem expensive, but there’s a healthy portion here that could be shared by at least four, assuming you’ve ordered a few other dishes. It’s worth the splurge. The servers here were also extra-attentive, switching out plates so that the leftover sauces from my table’s shared courses didn’t get mixed together. They also made sure I had a steady supply of extra napkins, a lifesaver when my hands became unavoidably coated in the crab sauce mentioned above.
Gripes: Khao soy ($8), a mild chicken curry that’s ubiquitous in northern Thailand, was a touch disappointing. The curry was too sweet and had none of the pungent fish sauce or lime flavor I’ve experienced in the very best versions at places such as Andy’s Thai Kitchen in Lakeview or Pok Pok in Brooklyn. One of the best parts of the dish is the textural contrast between the soft egg noodles in the curry and the crispy fried noodles that garnish the top, but Sala Bua skimped on the crispy noodles. Much like Vietnamese pho, khao soy is also usually served with a side plate of crispy shallots, herbs, chilis and more fish sauce so you can doctor it to your liking, but this was not on offer at Sala Bua. The kai tod ($6), or Thai-style fried chicken, was juicy to the bone and had a nice crisp crust, but it didn’t have the deeply caramelized skin and the comforting perfume of fry oil that I adore in my favorite version served at Spoon.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for truly assertive Thai flavors, you should stick to Chicago’s tried-and-true destinations: Spoon, Tac Quick, Rainbow and Andy’s Thai Kitchen. But, if you live nearby and are looking to branch out from pad thai, Sala Bua is a good introduction to authentic Thai.
Mini-review: Sala Bua
2002 S. Wentworth Ave. 312-808-1770
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.