Spread from Pink Salt Kitchens' rice and curry shop Credit: Palita Sriratana

You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’ve spent all day staring at the walls of your cubicle. All you want is a home-cooked meal, but the last thing you need right now is to haul up your granite mortar and pound out your own green curry paste from scratch. You don’t care about the inevitable side-eyes on the crowded rush hour train, or the judgy whispers calling you a “plastic bag housewife.” You’re grabbing dinner at the ran khao kaeng.

Nooooo . . . That sort of superior attitude about young professional Bangkokians too busy to cook went out of style in the 70s. But the city’s ran khao kaeng, aka rice-curry shops, are still everywhere the overworked and underfed need to find a comforting, old-fashioned meal that reminds them of something their Mae used to make.*

Now—for one night at least—Chicago has a new ran khao kaeng, when Pink Salt Kitchens hosts the next Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at Ludlow Liquors.

This Monday, March 13, marks the return of Pink Salt’s Palita Sriratana, one of the first chefs we hosted at MNF back in the innocent Kedzie Inn days of 2021. Since then she’s kept up with pop-ups but also launched her own line of shelf-stable Thai products, beginning with her take on nam prik pao. Will this versatile, smoky, sweet, tangy chili jam appear on the menu? Read on.

Pink Salt Kitchens’ gaeng hung lae. Credit: Palita Sriratana

This time Sriratana’s conjuring her own ran khao kaeng within Ludlow,  offering a choice of five of her favorite comfort foods, including gaeng hung lae, a laborious Northern Thai pork braise: a red curry redolent of cardamom, black pepper, and chilies, boosted with an additional Burmese dry spice blend. “It’s almost like a garam masala,” says Sriratana. “It’s a lot of spice. I don’t think a lot of the restaurants here serve it. I like to top it with dill, because it’s more common in Northern Thailand.”

Yeah right, you’ll get home and stuff your own lemongrass-loaded sai ua sausage, or pound two varieties of shredded papaya salad—one light and refreshing with salted duck egg, the other fiery, and saline, pounded with salted black crabs. “That’s for the people that want the heat,” says Sriratana. “It really wakes up your tastebuds.”

Finally, for the vegans: a classic green curry with oyster mushrooms, young bamboo, and bracing green peppercorns. “It’s my go-to,” says Sriratana. “It’s really fresh, bright, and flavorful with the coconut cream base.”

What you’ll do is choose two dishes from the menu—ran khao kaeng-style—to be served over jasmine rice, with a fried egg option. Hanger abated.

Are you gonna throw any of these together at home with any degree of competence on a Monday night? Of course not. But there’s more . . .

Pink Salt Kitchens rice and curry plate. Credit: Palita Sriratana

Growing up in Bloomington—a town sadly devoid of ran khao kaeng—whenever Sriratana’s family were too tired or hungry to cook, they ordered carryout from their neighbors, the Fongs, who owned the late, great Orient Gourmet. “We ordered, without fail, at least once a week, if not twice a week.”

At the time, Jaye Fong, who operates the marvelous pan-Asian microbakery Maa Maa Dei, used to work in the family restaurant. Ever since they reconnected in the early days of COVID, the pair have been plotting a pop-up collaboration.

Of course you remember Fong, who will break a new record as a fourtime MNF veteran on Monday. Like Sriratana, Fong’s plotting her own product line, as well as gearing up for a more savory series of pop-ups later this year exploring the food of the classic Hong Kong-style cafe.

For now, she’s come up with a trio of sweets with flavors complementing Sriratana’s menu, including a pandan-coconut cookie, upgradeable to a vanilla ice cream sandwich rolled in toasted coconut, and roasted soybean-powder mochi drizzled in fresh, spicy ginger syrup. “It’s going to be a really nice, light dessert that will sit well after you’ve eaten your fill of Palita’s delicious cooking,” says Fong.

Maa Maa Dei’s ice cream sandwich. Credit: Jaye Fong

Sure, you could ask them to package these things up and endure the withering scorn of everyone who sees you lugging your dinner home in a carryout bag. But then you’d miss out on the persimmon Old Fashioned that Grace and Joel are mixing behind the bar, as well as the thrill of throwing back a shot of West 32 Soju with a pineapple chunk dolloped with Pink Salt Kitchens’ nam prik pao—which will also be on sale by the jar.

No pre-orders. It’s first-come, first-served starting at 6 PM at Ludlow Liquors, 2959 N. California in Avondale.

Trust there’s a whole new spring-summer Foodball schedule in development. That sprawling patio is going to be sweet. In the meantime, throw on some shades, scroll down, and gaze upon the incandescent and abiding MFN schedule:

*h/t @leela.punya 

** a popular alternate romanization of “kaeng.” Also, h/t @leela.punya