Naem khao tod is a masterful balance of textures—fryer-fused clumps of alternately puffed, crunchy, and soft rice.
Naem khao tod is a masterful balance of textures—fryer-fused clumps of alternately puffed, crunchy, and soft rice. Credit: Andrea Bauer

Just a little over a decade ago on the Chicago board of the food chat site Chowhound, a poster by the name of “foodfirst” (aka food and travel writer Robyn Eckhardt) posted a translation of a Thai language menu from the Lincoln Square restaurant Spoon. It had been passed along to her by slavering local foodlums anxious to get a taste of real Thai food beyond pad thai and crab Rangoon.

This rudimentary translation, later expanded, studied, and obsessed over on Chowhound’s smarter successor LTHForum, and soon after discovered by the mainstream food press, became the catalyst for a great epiphany among the wider community of food obsessives in Chicago, who began seeking out the bright, vibrant, funky, and fiery dishes (formerly available only to those who could read Thai) at restaurants like TAC Quick, Sticky Rice, Rosded, Siam’s House, Thai Aree, and Aroy Thai.

But Spoon was the first favorite among LTHers who were raptured by dishes such as naem khao tod, a crispy, deep-fried rice salad with tangy fermented pork, or kai tod, hot, peppery, oyster-sauce-lacquered nuggets of chicken fried on the bone and dipped in a blazing sweet dipping sauce, or sai krog Isan, little orbs of funky, sour sausage served with raw ginger, chiles, and peanuts.

At the time Wanpen Phosawang was cooking much of that food at Spoon. She’d been hired three years before, shortly after she arrived in the U.S. from Bangkok with her husband, Pramote Rukprueksachart. Hailing from the rural northeastern Thailand region of Isan, she wasn’t an experienced cook. She didn’t know how to make much beyond simple, vegetable-dominant dishes of the region.

“They are the poor people,” Rukprueksachart says of Isan’s population. “[They] didn’t make red curry, or all the fried stuff, or grilled food.”

Phosawang was hired to assist Spoon’s head chef, an older woman who didn’t move around much, acting as her hands and legs. “‘Wanpen go get this, cut this, make this.’ She prepared everything every day for many years,” says Rukprueksachart. Phosawang learned to cook everything on Spoon’s menu, from the Americanized stuff to the more authentic dishes on the formerly “secret” menu. Eventually she rose to head chef and began preparing things like Isan sausage and the fish cakes known as tod mun for Silver Spoon and Hello Thai and Sushi, the two other restaurants owned by her bosses.

It got to be too much, says Rukprueksachart, who’s worked as a server at Star of Siam and as a delivery driver for other Thai restaurants. So last spring when the little storefront on Western in Lincoln Square that once housed the mainly takeout Thai spot Snow Spice came up for grabs, the couple bought it and reopened it as Rainbow Cuisine—though for lack of a sign you wouldn’t know it from the outside.

For about year they operated relatively under the radar, in a neighborhood that has the highest concentration of Thai restaurants in the city. Thus far the 11 Yelp reviews have bestowed high praise on Phosawang’s’s menu of familiar Ameri-Thai standards: “All i can say is that the food is AH-MAY-ZING!!!!!!! The crab ragoons [sic] and potstickers are a must try.” What went unnoticed was the untranslated menu of 45 dishes primarily made for Thai customers—people like Rukprueksachart’s old boss, who doesn’t serve many of them in his own restaurant.

But history repeated itself earlier this month when LTHForum poster Matt Zatkoff (aka “laikom”) poked his head into Rainbow on a whim and spotted the Thai menu. Like any good soldier, he took cell phone shots of it, wrote a rough translation with the aid of Google, and quickly posted it on the board (after lunch of course).

A minor feeding frenzy ensued, with posters returning multiple days in a row (myself included), ticking off dishes on the Thai menu and making selected forays onto the main menu.

Phosawang’s naem khao tod is a masterful balance of textures—fryer-fused clumps of alternately puffed, crunchy, and soft rice, spiced with red curry paste, chiles, fish sauce, and sugar, and mixed with peanuts, slivers of fresh ginger, and bits of raw soured pork. The first person to market this dish as a movie-theater snack will make a fortune.

At first Rukprueksachart was perplexed that non-Thais were interested in dishes as aggressive as the blazing hot salad of enoki mushrooms with the texture of thin pasta, or as powerfully funky as the equally spicy pickled bamboo shoot salad. But neither he nor Phosawang held back (unlike those Thai restaurateurs who assume that non-Thais can’t handle the food they eat themselves). The Thai version of the popular hot-and-sour soup tom yam is not only spicier but also more redolent of galangal and lemongrass than the one they serve to those ordering from the English menu.

But not everything from the Thai menu is meant to scalp you with chiles. The khao kluk ka pi, a deconstructed shrimp paste fried-rice dish with sweet pork, julienned apples, and shredded omelet meant to be mixed at the eater’s discretion and eaten with fork and spoon, is deep and soulful. Kluay khaek kluay tod, a lineup of short burro bananas clad in a sweet, crispy, coconut-rice-flour batter, is a terrific sweet.

And there are choices. If you can resist the crunchy chunks of deep-fried pork belly that come with the earthy Chinese broccoli, you can have it instead with powerfully briny salted dried fish.

Many of the familiar dishes on the English menu are done equally well. Wanpen’s kai tod (the aforementioned chicken) is more tender than most versions around town, and the sweetness of the dipping sauce she serves alongside is balanced with a strong dose of fish sauce. On one visit a fortuitous request to make the normally sweet, gloppy noodle dish pad see ew extra crispy was rewarded with noodles that had been dunked in the deep fryer so that they were puffed and crunchy like pork rinds. I’ll never eat it any other way again.

Phosawang and Rukprueksachart have had some trouble keeping up with this new demand. Her sai krog Isan is one of her most coveted dishes. A few times she’s run out of the small balls of sour ground pork and rice, and her customers have been forced to wait a few days while a new batch ferments. Up until now she’s had assists from Rukprueksachart, who takes the orders and handles the small 12-seat dining room, and from their 14-year-old son. During peak times orders can back up, but the couple are adjusting to their growing notoriety. They’ve hired a prep cook and dishwasher to help out.

It’s not that you can’t order all the dishes on Rainbow’s Thai menu at a half a dozen or so other Thai restaurants around town. And nobody is claiming Phosawang’s food is the best—although a strong case for some dishes, like the naem khao tod, can certainly be made. But it’s far more than just the flavor of the month. At the very least it’s now a more dependable source for food that recalls the glory days of Spoon, when it all seemed brand-new.