Yen ta fo, with fishy bits and blocks of congealed pork blood, pushes sweetness to the limit.
Yen ta fo, with fishy bits and blocks of congealed pork blood, pushes sweetness to the limit. Credit: Mike Sula

There’s a bamboo fish trap hanging from the ceiling above the register at Andy’s Thai Kitchen. It is cylindrical, about the length and diameter of a human arm, with its opening aimed toward the door to entice potential customers as if they’re hapless fish. But if you take this good luck charm for its full figurative purpose and imagine yourself a fish in chef-owner Andy Aroonrasameruang’s trap, it means you won’t be able to turn and swim away before he excises your air bladder, chops it into pieces, and deep-fries them so they puff like Cheetos.

Fish maw salad was an early favorite among those who embraced Aroonrasameruang’s explosively flavorful cooking at Wrigleyville’s TAC Quick. There’s something about crispy fish guts tossed with shrimp, cashews, cilantro, and mint in a sweet-hot dressing that pushes all the buttons for a certain species of foodlum—the brilliant, piercing, contrasting flavors of Thai food applied to an intimidating animal part transformed by the fryer into something no more threatening than a pork rind. It’s an offal-based dish that goes down easy, but comes with bragging rights for those who keep score.

Fish maw salad is also on the menu at Andy’s Thai Kitchen, which, like the chef’s former redoubt, is housed under a highly trafficked el stop. Many of the other old favorites have made the transfer, too: deep, rich, beefy bowls of boat noodles teeming with soft brisket and crunchy pork rinds; pad prik khing, crispy, gnarly shreds of pork belly stir-fried with long beans and raw jalapeños in a thin, rust-colored curry; crispy ong choy, Chinese water spinach tempura-battered and deep-fried, served with shrimp and minced chicken.

This last is a reflection of what food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu describes as a tendency among chefs in Thailand to target a younger generation exposed to American fast-food chains (like KFC) by batter-frying key ingredients in classic dishes.

In the case of the ong choy, it’s an appealing development that Aroonrasameruang has imported, the batter never overwhelming the vegetable. But when applied to familiar standards such as papaya salad, for which he batters and deep-fries the shredded unripe fruit until it has the same texture and consistency as a funnel cake, it’s just a goofy, gimmicky riff.

Then again, Aroonrasameruang offers three more versions of the hot-sour-sweet som tam, none of which could be faulted for a lack of seriousness and each incorporating salty-funky ingredients such as dried shrimp, marinated raw blue crab, and mud fish curd. This last ingredient—the fermented, disintegrated flesh of the snakehead fish—appears in a soup too: tom sab Issan, a sweet-and-sour brew in which the fish is incorporated into the broth, balancing the sweetness with a depth of flavor that doesn’t at all hint at the concentrated power an open jar of this stuff will express in a windowless room.

Credit: Alison Green

Historically, uncompromising dishes such as these are a big part of Aroonrasameruang’s popularity among intrepid non-Thai eaters seeking something less condescending than crab Rangoon and goopy, sickly sweet pad thai. And at ATK, he’s intent on rewarding them further, adding a raw blue crab salad (yum poo ma), the critters hacked into pieces and tossed with minced raw garlic, Chinese celery, cilantro, and dried shrimp. You’re meant to suck cold, sweet, gelatinous flesh from the split carapace and break the legs with your teeth as the aromatics swirl around your face. It’s a deeply animalistic way to eat—pretend you’re a sea otter and go to town. Then there’s a soup bluntly dubbed “pork organ” in which bits of offal exude a gutsy funk that contrasts the clear hot-and-sour broth.

I say dishes like these appeal to a certain type of eater, but Aroonrasameruang’s style skews sweeter than those at other beloved Thai spots such as Spoon, Sticky Rice, and Aroy Thai, which broadens his appeal. Sweetness is the primary foil for other strong flavors, but it rarely threatens to dominate. It mitigates the richness of the preserved duck eggs topped with minced chicken and fried basil leaves, and it tempers an omelet cooked with the sulfurous herb cha om and bathed in sour curry.

But it’s not that you can’t sometimes control these flavors yourself. The kapi fried rice is a deconstructed plate, a mound of grains seasoned with pungent shrimp paste that you’re meant to customize with bites of sweet pork, green mango, raw red onion, dried shrimp, lime juice, and egg. Similarly, the sour tang of Aroonrasameruang’s celebrated fermented pork and rice Issan sausage can be calibrated with individual bites of raw ginger, cabbage, chiles, and peanuts.

ATK also features a number of specialties expressing the Chinese influence on Thai food, and sweetness is evident in those as well. Take a pair of red-braised pork dishes: tofu and pork belly with star anise, and pork hock with Chinese broccoli—though the red, tomato-based soup yen ta fo, brimming with fishy bits and blocks of congealed pork blood, pushes this sweetness to the limit, its broth staining slippery ribbons of rice noodles a freakish candy-colored pink.

We’re at a fortunate stage in the city’s culinary history where formerly impenetrable Thai menus are no longer segregated from menus meant for non-Thais. But before that, TAC Quick was always the easiest for non-Thais to navigate. And that’s continued at ATK. Sure, you’ll still see tables of diners hunkered over their individual servings of pad thai, studiously ignoring the more sublime delights all over the five-page menu. But that’s the sort of fish that’s doesn’t realize the special trap in which it’s caught.