Pla som thot (panfried soured fish) at Tom Yum Cafe Credit: Mike Sula

Ah the heady, dreamy days of midsummer 2015, when Arun Sampanthavivat was readying Taste of Thai Town in a repurposed Albany Park police station, and all were dreaming of a Thai Eataly, a one-stop repository for the universe of Thai flavors. Alas, ToTT, turned out to be nothing special. Just a large restaurant with an unsurprising menu, mostly full of the familiar standards you can find on practically every block of the city. Thai food fans slouched back to the comfort of Rainbow, Aroy, and Andy’s Thai Kitchen, secure in the knowledge that they were getting the tastiest, most uncompromising, regional Thai food east of Los Angeles. 

But were we? This week I reviewed Immm Rice & Beyond, a new Uptown spot from a Spoon Thai veteran featuring khao rad gang, or rice and curry dishes, spooned out from behind a steam table. It’s a pretty significant opening, and one that rightfully deserves the attention it’s getting. But as I mention in the review, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to relatively new and interesting Thai food around town. Remember when the so-called “secret menus” at places such as Spoon and TAC Quick were first translated, revealing a whole new world of bright, sweet, spicy, funky food that previously you just couldn’t get unless you spoke Thai, or knew someone in the know? You’re probably pretty jaded by now aren’t you? Well, if that’s true I encourage you to check out Tom Yum Cafe and Paula’s Thai Kitchen

Back when it was a weekly magazine, Time Out Chicago published a story about the late-night scene on weekends at Dharma Garden, when restaurant workers would end their shifts and gather at the Irving Park restaurant to sing karaoke and chow down on sai krok isan, nua dad deawLeela Punyaratabandhu of SheSimmers was good enough to translate them. I’ve posted them below.


Tom Yum Cafe
Tom Yum CafeCredit: Mike Sula

Tom Yum Cafe (608 W. Barry, 773-270-5672)

I’m probably most excited about this tiny place I learned about from Instagrammer strangefoodschicago (follow him). I’m sure I’d have never given it a second glance otherwise—it’s tucked off Broadway in Lakeview, with a total of four tables and a take-out menu that wouldn’t make an Amish farmer blink. But hidden in plain sight on a dry-erase board on the wall is a second, more or less permanent menu that acts as an addendum to the laminated one written entirely in Thai. They contain such uncommon treasures as pla som thot, or panfried soured fish (the dish that got Punyaratabandhu excited); som tam that, a large, shareable som tam platter with things like pork rinds, hard-cooked eggs, rice vermicelli, and fresh vegetables, with herbs on the side; and kaeng som cha-om khai, or sour curry of acacia leaves.

These menus are available more or less all day, though the dishes they contain aren’t always prepped in the early hours, so they might take a bit longer to arrive. Portions are huge, but don’t let that stop you. Pla som thot here is extraordinary. The fish arrives hidden under a pile of herbs and red onions and perched on a thin, crispy omelet, and it takes some work to extract the pink flesh from the skeletal structure; its intense sourness comes from fermenting in cooked rice, garlic, and salt. Funky as a Bootsy riff, but in no way could you consider it spoiled. It has a similar profile to the fermented pork sausage naem, the star of the crispy rice salad naem khao thot (also on the menu), so much so that I wonder why no one makes a version of that dish with pla som. There’s also an unusual version of phat ka-phrao mu krop, a sweet and umamic stir-fry of deep-fried crispy pork belly and fragrant basil, this version incorporating ground pork; tom saep kraduk mu, the northeastern Isan region’s answer to the central territory’s tom yam, a deep tureen of murky, tart soup supposedly with pork ribs (mine came instead with gelatinous pig’s feet—not complaining). Meanwhile pla muek phat khai khem, or stir-fried squid with salted duck eggs, brings some bottom-end funk to the proceedings. 

<i>Phat ka-phrao mu krop</i> (spicy basil stir-fry of crispy pork belly) at Tom Yum Cafe
Phat ka-phrao mu krop (spicy basil stir-fry of crispy pork belly) at Tom Yum CafeCredit: Mike Sula

There’s a lot more to explore on this menu. Here’s Punyaratabandhu’s translation: 

Dry-erase board menu (some overlap)

Line 1: Chef’s Recommendations

Line 2: som tam khai khem (som tam with salted duck eggs), som tam that (som tam platter, which is like a som tam equivalent of the pu pu platter. It’s a large platter with Isan-style som tam in the middle and several miscellaneous items on the side, usually include fried pork rinds, steamed pork terrine [similar to Viet pork terrine], fresh rice vermicelli [khanom jin], hard-boiled eggs [sometimes hard-boiled salted duck eggs], assorted fresh vegetables and herbs. It’s meant to be shared.)

Line 3: [som] tam mua (like som tam above, but with all the components mixed together and comes in a smaller portion), [som] tam pu ma (som tam with blue crabs), [som tam] mu krop (som tam with crispy pork belly)

Line 4; kaeng som cha-om khai (sour curry of acacia cakes), kaeng som phak ruam (sour curry of mixed vegetables), [som] tam hoi dong (som tam with pickled cockles)

Line 5: yam naem khao thot (crispy rice salad with soured pork), yam mu yo (spicy salad of pork terrine)

Line 6: khao phat naem (fried rice with soured pork), khao rat [kaeng] (one-plate meal of rice topped with miscellaneous things)

Line 7: tom yam kha mu (tom yam soup of pig’s trotters), tom saep khrueang nai (Isan-style tom yam-like soup of offal; the name doesn’t specify whether it’s pork or beef offal)

Line 8: tom saep kraduk mu (Isan-style tom yam-like soup of pork ribs), lap nuea (northern-style lap. The “nuea” part may lead people to think this is a beef salad but that would be a mistranslation: the Thai word is written in the rising tone and, therefore, means “north” or “northern” as opposed to “beef” which would be in the high tone.) 

Line 9: sup yuea phai sai mu sap (clear soup of bamboo mushrooms [Phallus indusiatus] with ground-pork dumplings), tom juet mu sap (clear soup of ground-pork dumplings)

Line 10: jok mu (rice congee with ground-pork dumplings), (jok mu) tap (rice congee with ground-pork dumplings and poached pork liver), (jok mu) khai (rice congee with ground-pork dumplings and poached egg)

Line 11: kaeng proe (Isan bamboo shoot-mushroom soup), kao lao nuea pueai (stewed beef in soy-based herbal broth)

Line 12: kaeng khiao wan luk chin pla krai (green curry of bouncy fish balls/dumplings)

Line 13: kaeng pa luk chin pla krai (“jungle” [coconutless red] curry of bouncy fish balls/dumplings)

Line 14: khanom jin (fresh rice vermicelli. It’s gotta be topped with something, as the noodles are never served plain, but the menu doesn’t specify), miang pla thu (leaf-wrapped salad bites featuring Thai short-bodied mackerel), phat phrik khing pla duk (sweet dry curry of catfish)

Line 15: [phat] ka-phrao mu krop (spicy basil stir-fry of crispy pork belly), [phat ka-phrao] khai yiao ma (spicy basil stir-fry of century eggs)

Line 16: pla muek phat khai khem (stir-fried squid with salted duck eggs), pla salit thot (panfried sun-dried snake skin gourami fish [Trichogaster pectoralis])

Line 17: pla som thot (panfried soured fish)

Line 18: khao niao nam ka-thi thurian (sweet sticky rice with durian in coconut cream)

Line 20: Thank you for your support . . . 

Credit: Mike Sula

Laminated menu

Recommended dishes

Hot & spicy

som tam khai khem
[som] tam pu ma
yam wun sen (glass noodle salad)
tap wan (Isan-style beef liver salad)

[som] tam that
yam naem khao thot
lap (Isan-style meat salad)

[som] tam mua
yam mu yo
nam tok (Isan-style grilled meat salad)
yam pla muek (squid salad)

Soups (literally “Wet stuff”)

tom juet yuea phai (note: different name here, but it’s the same as sup yuea phai sai mu sap in the other menu)
kaeng khiao wan (green curry)
kaeng som (sour curry)
jok (rice congee)

kaeng juet wun sen (clear soup of glass noodles)
kaeng liang phak ruam (spicy mixed vegetable soup)
kaeng pa (jungle curry)
kaeng proe

tom yam nam khon (creamy tom yam)
kaeng om (Isan-style mixed vegetable soup)
tom saep (Isan-style tom yam-like soup)
kao lao

Grilled, fried, and stir-fried (literally “Dry stuff”)

[phat] ka-phrao
phat phet pla duk (spicy catfish stir-fry)
phat phrik khing (sweet dry curry)
khao phat (fried rice)
pla muek phat khai khem
kho mu yang (grilled pork neck)

ho mok (steamed curried custard)
phat phrik yuak (banana pepper stir-fry)
[phat] khana mu krop (stir-fried Chinese broccoli with crispy pork)
khao rat [kaeng]
pla salit thot

nam phrik pla thu (a set of fried Thai short-bodied mackerel, vegetables, and shrimp-paste relish)
lon (coconut milk relish)
chu-chi (dry red curry)
khanom jin miang pla thu (different name but same as miang pla thu in the previous menu)
kai thot (fried chicken)

Page one of the late-night menu at Paula's Thai Kitchen
Page one of the late-night menu at Paula’s Thai KitchenCredit: Mike Sula

Paula’s Thai Kitchen
(2441 N. Halsted, 773-360-1477)

This little Lincoln Park spot is home to a veteran chef, Duong Ta (daughter of Paula), who’s cooked in Thai restaurants all over the city, including Spoon and Dharma Garden. Like Tom Yum Cafe, it features a conventional Thai menu—but the good stuff is on a two-page, fully translated menu, served only after 4 PM, when Duong arrives for work (Paula’s is open until 2 AM). Among the three, it has the greatest variety, and if you’re a fan of the O.G. secret menus, you’ll recognize a lot of dishes. New to me was naem tod sa mun pai, or pork-preserved herb salad, full of crispy fried shallots, peanuts, and Chinese sausage. It’s an ideal drinking food. Then there’s the unusual gao lao jang chiin neun* (Punyaratabandhu suspects this dish is properly spelled kao lao luk chin nuea), a salad of springy beef meatballs with Chinese broccoli in a sweet soy-based sauce.

Nam tod sa mun pa (pork preserved herb salad), Paula's Thai Kitchen
Nam tod sa mun pa (pork preserved herb salad), Paula’s Thai KitchenCredit: Mike Sula
Paula's Thai Kitchen
Paula’s Thai KitchenCredit: Mike Sula