tao-jaew, Sala Bua

A Thai restaurant in Chinatown? What’s next? Korean? Japanese? (Oh, yeah.) Actually, you can look at most Asian cuisines and cherrypick dishes/techniques/influences that can be traced back to China. Cha chiang mian? China. Ramen? China.* In Thailand it’s pretty much anything stir-fried or any noodle dish (which, by the way, is the only thing you should be using chopsticks for in a Thai restaurant).

Sala Bua, at the far-eastern reach of the Chinatown Mall in the space that housed the late Tao Ran Ju, has a menu of familiar Ameri-Thai standards (crab Rangoon, pad thai, etc), but it’s also been getting some attention for being upfront about serving a lot of things non-Thais used to have to ferret out on so-called secret menus; things like Isan sausage, spicy raw shrimp with fish sauce (goong chae nam pla), and four varieties of papaya salad (with dried shrimp, raw blue crab, salted crab, or pickled fish).


But I went in with the excessively hopeful hypothesis that maybe some of the more Chinese-rooted dishes would be a degree or two better than at most places—especially khao man gai, the Thai version of Hainanese chicken. A steamed or boiled bird resting on a pile of schmaltzy, garlicky, chicken-saturated rice, it’s a rarity outside southeast Asia, rarer still when done well. You won’t find that here either. The rice is plenty garlicky, but arid and devoid of lipids, just like the chicken itself. Another Chinese-ish dish, moo palo (here just palo), a stew of five-spiced-pork belly and boiled egg, is skimpy on the meat and so sweet you could pour it over ice cream.

There was one nice surprise though, one with a more latent Chinese connection. I’d never seen tao-jaew before, described on the menu as “house specialty ground pork in a coconut bean sauce served with cucumber.” It turned out to be a member of Thailand’s extended family of relishes meant to be eaten with raw vegetables and rice. Friend of the Food Chain Leela Punyaratabandhu later explained that both the “bean” in question and the name of the dish itself result from a mistransliteration of the Chinese word for fermented soybeans, in this case, “white” soybeans, or taojiao. She says a Thai person would call this particular dish taojiao lon, the latter word referring to the technique of cooking something in coconut cream, which gives the dish its dominant flavor and texture, like a rich, creamy, sweet, coconut Bolognese sauce. The presentation is pretty too: carefully carved cucumber coins with a slight concave depression filled with the relish and topped with a sliver of blazing hot red chile. A nice little munch.

If you want to see how Hainanese chicken should be prepared, here’s Leela’s recipe for khao man gai.

Sala Bua

Sala Bua, 2002 S. Wentworth, 312-808-1770

* From la-mian.