There’s a long letter posted on the door at Andy’s Thai Kitchen, a new restaurant in Lake View. There’s stuff about an old restaurant no longer being the restaurant it once was, things about a new chef, preserving Thai grandparents’ ancient recipes, and authenticity. As letters on restaurant doors go, it is long.
The distilled essence is this: Up until few weeks ago this tiny storefront that shakes and rumbles with every passing of a Brown Line train overhead, was like a hundred other soggy noodle joints in town. Then one day, a Thai master chef, scratch that, one of Chicago’s very best chefs, Andy Aroonrasameruang, left one of Chicago’s most celebrated Thai restaurants across town, took over this establishment and in a matter of weeks completely transformed it into maybe Chicago’s best Thai restaurant.
Andy’s Thai Kitchen is not one of best-designed restaurants in Chicago, however. The way the front entrance abruptly ends up against a host station offering a partially veiled view of the long kitchen and ultimately a vista toward the back alley is certainly some kind of violation of Feng Shui. But, where most Thai places are usually some kind of muddle of vinyl-backed chairs, harsh lighting, “lucky” bamboo plants and various other vaguely Asian tchotchkes, Andy’s is kind of nice. It’s gauzily lit by flickering candles suitable for a romantic dinner. Its mahogany chairs, Ikea flower chandelier and framed flower photos are comforting, channeling less a Thai joint and more of a quiet American bistro. The big plate-glass windows and the vista of the elevated train tracks give it a bit of a Hopperesque “Nighthawks” vibe, where lonely hearts don’t linger over coffee as much as finely stir-fried noodles.
Though the pad thai is fine at Andy’s, the noodles you want to linger over are kao soy. Kao soy translates as “cut rice” to signify that a sheet of rice dough is steamed and then hand-cut in to noodles for this dish. Kao soy is to Thailand-based Thai restaurants what pad thai is to American Thai restaurants — a ubiquitous standard by which most Thai chefs are judged. Andy’s is a nest of crispy fried and soft steamed noodles plunged in to a thin, rich, mild chicken curry spiked with sour mustard sprinkled with toasted peanut and pungent bright lime.
Though, before you dig in to such a comforting batch of curry, you’ll want to open the palate with sai krog issan, a Northern Thai fermented pork and rice sausage punctuated by stinging chilis and the citrus punch of lemongrass. You’ll also probably require a little kai tod, marinated fried chicken whose juicy flesh is covered in a magnificent crackling skin that flays from the bone.
You’ll also need the crispy on choy, a righteous jumble of tender shrimp, tempura-fried peppery watercress, scallions, chilis and refreshing mint. The moat of fish sauce-enriched sweet chili underneath is a burning and bursting yin-yang fireworks display of flavor. It is one of the very best dishes in Chicago.
Once you’ve lit up your mouth with the bright and fiery on choy, it’s best to weigh yourself down with some richness. There is no lack of delightfully heavy things —pork belly in all forms — but it’s the crispy nubs of garlic-encrusted pork ribs served with a side of Sriracha that I like. I also dig the rib-sticking duck red curry, its hunks of rare duck swaddled in a spicy gravy tempered by plump, bursting, in-season teardrop tomatoes and peeled succulent grapes.
If you’re looking for something familiar, skip the pad thai and dig in instead to the pad see ew with its al dente verdant florets of broccoli and custardy clouds of egg. Most local versions of this dish are larded with gummy long pan sauteed soggy noodles, but at Andy’s they’re chopped in to small manageable silky bits.
Asian restaurants aren’t known for their desserts, but here they’re pretty good. A caramelized banana enrobed in sticky rice and encrusted with a handful of cashews and a luscious custard topped with sweet fried shallot both skew savory, but pack just enough sugar to sate your sweet tooth.
There’s a guy named Andy Ricker, who in the last few years has been getting a lot of praise for bringing authentic Thai to America at his Pok Pok restaurants in Portland and New York. In fact he just won a James Beard award for his efforts. Aroonrasameruang’s food is just as good and deserves just as much acclaim.
ANDY’S THAI KITCHEN ★★½
946 W. Wellington; (773) 549-7821
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times in a different form.