Ka Pow” is the accidental way Ocimum tenuiflorum, aka holy basil, aka ใบกะเพรา, aka ka-prao, announces its presence among the produce at Talard Thai Asian Market. All that’s missing on the label is an exclamation point and the clenched fist of a superhero to communicate the seriousness of this intoxicating green herb’s arrival in Edgewater, where Supasin “Pete” Ratchadapronvanich and Simon Atapan have opened a dedicated Thai market—let’s call it a supermarket—the scale and ambition of which the city hasn’t enjoyed since the closing of the beloved Thai Grocery almost 12 years ago.
Ka-prao is an essential ingredient in a simple but iconic Thai dish that appears on restaurant menus all over the city—but usually in name only. That’s because holy basil is hard to get in Chicago, and chefs usually sub in readily available purple sweet basil. But if your fried-egg-topped minced ground protein with garlic, chilis, and fish, oyster, and soy sauces has no ka-prao in it, you shouldn’t be calling it pad ka-prao. That’s according to food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu, who once directed me to a cheap stall at the top of a Bangkok shopping mall so I could taste for myself how exquisite even the humblest versions of pad ka-prao can be when they’re actually made with the real stuff.
Ka-prao occasionally shows up in one or more of the Asian groceries in the orbit of Argyle Street, but it’s too rare to start a course correction for a majority of local restaurants or home cooks. Ratchadapronvanich and Atapan and their partners aim to change all that.
The pair grew up ten minutes away from each other in Bangkok’s Silom neighborhood, but didn’t meet until after they’d come to Chicago and finished their studies, Ratchadapronvanich in IT and Atapan in business management. Last year the former opened Hom Mali in Old Town (and later West Town) and the latter was hired at Arun’s and Taste of Thai Town after New York restauranteur Kittigorn Lirtpanaruk bought into the latter two restaurants, bringing Arun Sampanthavivat’s iconic fine dining destination back from the dead. The trio also joined forces with former Bangkok Video owner Sutthamas Tetiwat to open Talard in the former Golden Pacific Market, where Ratchadapronvanich’s wife once worked and which had been sitting idle since the owner moved to California.
Ratchadapronvanich points out that Chicagoland suffers no shortage of Thai restaurants but has had to make do with only two small Thai markets: PNA in Lincoln Square and Thai Food Corporation in Uptown. Golden Pacific had the city’s best selection of Thai products but its broad spectrum of southeast Asian goods meant it wasn’t a specialist. Good luck finding a consistent—or even existent—supply of ka-prao, makrut lime leaves, cilantro roots, or any number of ingredients critical to Thai cuisine.
“If they cannot find the right ingredients then they just have to play along with what they have,” says Atapan.
“We try to have stuff you cannot buy anywhere,” says Ratchadapronvanich. With the help of Sampanthavivat the partners spent last year courting distributors in Bangkok, Los Angeles, and New York, nailing down deals to bring in iconic brands like Mama instant noodles and Kuao Thai Thai, represented by YouTube star Jey Sal E San, which manufactures a number of relishes from the huge family of nam phrik that form the foundation of Thai cuisine.
Talard stocks dips such as nam phrik pla ra made from fermented mudfish, the tamarind- and shrimp-paste-based nam phrik ma kham, and steamed-mackerel nam phrik pla thu, all touchstones in Thai cuisine that are rarely available here—along with the proper vegetables to eat them with, such as green pea eggplants, winged beans, or dok khae flowers. The brand is also responsible for the $16 jar of pearly white ant eggs for the Isan salad koi khai mot daeng, and Isan-style tom yam soup.
Some produce ships directly from Thailand, and has perilously short shelf lives, which is why a few lobes of fresh durian will run you $32, and the powerful punch of never-frozen sator beans costs $8 for five ounces. Other hard-to-find produce comes from warm weather states such as California or Texas, and can include whole makrut limes, lotus stems, water mimosa, or ivy gourd leaves.
What can’t be found fresh might be found in the long freezer cases that take up nearly the back half of the store. Packets of cilantro root, an essential ingredient for marinades and curry pastes, are stuffed alongside sadao leaves (to eat with the grilled fish) and sweet-and-sour fruits like makok, grill-ready sweet custards jacketed in banana leaves or bamboo stalks, more than 40 varieties of fish balls and a plethora of Champ-brand frozen sausages that I’ve been greedily working my way through for weeks.
The partners, both in their 30s, stocked the shelves with a fair bit of nostalgia too. “If you go to a Thailand 7-Eleven you see everything here,” says Ratchadapronvanich, standing in front of a refrigerator case stacked with soft drinks, everything from Sinha club soda to Ichitan Yen Yen Herbal Drink. “All of this stuff we grew up with,” says Atapan, dwarfed by a wall of crunchy snacks.
For all their rigorous sourcing on behalf of exacting home cooks, they’re also targeting a modern embrace of convenience, stacking the shelves with popular brands of instant coffee, curry pastes, and meal kits along with every variety of Mama instant noodles, and a selection from its competitor Wai Wai. On one of my visits Atapan was disappointed that they’d sold out of the salted duck egg flavor Lay’s potato chips, but instead insisted I try the two-in-one bag of grilled river prawn and spicy seafood sauce flavor.
Talard, which means simply “market” in Thai, had its grand opening on November 22, hosting luminaries such as Songkran beauty pageant winner Arthy Dao, Sampanthavivat, and the Thai consulate general. Now that they’re up and running they’re focusing on converting Golden Pacific’s former meat counter into a cafeteria-style khao rad gang model, the Thai version of meat and three, featuring rice and curry dishes served from steam tables.
Meanwhile, they want to grow their wholesale business so prices come down and more restaurants start cooking regularly with ingredients like ka-prao and ivy gourd leaf, or pak tam lung. It’s already happening, says Atapan, who points out that Me Dee Cafe in Ravenswood has plans to start serving tom lueat mu, or clear pig blood soup, seasoned with the latter.
“We want people to know that when you come here you can get everything from Thailand,” says Ratchadapronvanich. v