One of my last great group restaurant meals was in February. All the essential elements for a swell time were present: a long, loaded table occupied by interesting, (often) hilarious people; a nearly empty dining room that afforded us the company of the owners, who treated us like their own; an array of some 13 astonishing dishes, paired with about half as many BYO wines (the likes of which I’ll probably never taste again).
It’s difficult not to live in the past, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying. Not long after that dinner, Uptown’s In-On Thai put the chairs up in the dining room and reverted to contactless carryout and third-party delivery. On its face that seems like an indignity to the food of Korakot Vongsatit, her son-in-law Atichat “Don” Srisawangpan, and her daughter Inon, the restaurant’s namesake. But it holds up pretty well in transit.
The family had reopened in this new space just a few months before the shutdown, after a two-year absence when their original location in Lakeview went the way of the condo. When they opened that original location in 2014, shortly after Vongsatit arrived in Chicago, they quickly earned a reputation for making scratch curry pastes, a laborious practice shortcutted with canned products by most U.S. Thai restaurants. That’s not necessarily a bad compromise when essential ingredients are hard to come by, or substandard to what you could find in any market in Thailand, but In-On was distinguished for its commitment to the process.
Srisawangpan was born in Chicago but grew up in Bangkok after his parents graduated from college here. Back home, he met Inon and married into the family business, a small food court spot specializing in khao rad gang, or rice and curry dishes.
When they moved to Chicago in 2001, Srisawangpan cooked in a handful of Thai restaurants but quickly found an enduring job as a server at the Peninsula, where he’s worked for 18 years, even as Korakot and Inon launched the first incarnation of the restaurant. He moonlighted in his off hours, and while he’s been off from the hotel after the shutdown, he’s been helping in the kitchen at In-On full time. But the soul of the food comes from his mother-in-law. Initially, In-On nominally represented the food of central Thailand—Bangkok and its surroundings—then started offering dishes rooted in the north, south, and northeastern Isan region of Thailand. The menu is all over the map.
At that February dinner we started out with fat coins of sai oua, the sausage’s porky density pierced with Inon’s housemade chili paste, lemongrass, and makrut lime leaf; deep-fried soured pork riblets, fermented with rice powder; and flaky curried potato puffs. There was a green bean salad with ground pork, just-cooked sweet shrimp, and creamy wedges of boiled eggs whose hot and sour seasoning was tempered with a drizzle of coconut cream. There was crispy chicken “nam tok,” another salad of delicately battered and fried poultry nuggets, tossed with toasted rice powder and a gale force of mint*; and similarly the restaurant’s signature jungle salad, with julienned green apple and thin slices of crispy fried fish. This meal’s sharp spikes of flavors and textures could read like an EKG printout that bottomed out with the appearance of a “Chinese omelet,” as Srisawangpan calls it. That’s o suan, the softer, coddled version of the crispy shellfish omelet hoi tod, on this particular night a sticky, amorphous goo studded with crunchy bean sprouts. It’s comforting mucilaginousness was like a headrest after an intense workout.
As exhaustively documented on LTHForum, these dishes have been cemented as the greatest hits at In-On, among the ones that set them apart from the city’s other great Thai spots.
In-On’s mee krob, a too often oversweetened crispy rice noodle dish descended from the Thai royal table, has a redeeming balance of acidity in its sauce, deepened and darkened with fermented bean curd. The hot and sour seafood soup tom klong pla krob, has a lurking smokiness from dried fish powder, while stir-fried bamboo shoots with chicken in a red curry sauce has the familiar subtlety of Vongsatit’s other scratch curries, like her kaeng pa—a searing thin curry with, as supply allows, two varieties of small round eggplant.
In ordering carryout I’ve avoided some of the things I suspected wouldn’t travel well (Srisawangpan advises against ordering the o suan until he can serve it personally on a warm plate). But I’ve had surprisingly good luck with fried items: the fish for the jungle salad is packaged separately from the wet components, and a brand new obsession for me, “crispy pork salad” aka larb moo tod, is a miracle from the deep fryer (a modern central-Thai take on a classic Isan dish not normally fried). Soft, intensely herbaceous, spicy and sour pork meatballs jacketed in a hot, crispy force field that can survive a 30-minute drive from Uptown. These fritters need to be swiftly canonized as the official drinking snack of your summer.
In recent weeks the family have been test running for regulars a few off-menu items that they cook for themselves, a few of which are going permanent. Rivaling the aforementioned larb fritter for your home bar-snack consideration, mok nor mai are steamed banana leaf packets stuffed with pork belly, sour bamboo shoots, and snappy, pebble-sized hed phor mushrooms, all fragrant with an herbal mix of dill, lime leaf, and cha om. A ferociously spicy southern Thai squash and bamboo curry, gaeng tai pla, thicker than customary, with a depth of flavor you’d never guess was built on a salty base of fermented fish innards if you didn’t know it already, will make occasional appearances. And you can balance your overfiring synapses with a thin, particularly sweet rendition of the five-spiced egg and pork belly stew kai pa lo.
Korakot, Inon, and Don are nowhere near comfortable with the idea of reopening their dining room to the public yet, even though he’s planning to return to work at the Peninsula next month. He’ll continue to moonlight though, and he’s waiting for a sidewalk dining permit. I’m just grateful that their food doesn’t suffer outside the restaurant’s plastic takeout divider—nor is it stuck in the past.
*this dish, ubiquitous at McDonald’s, KFC, and other fast-food chains in Thailand, is normally referred to as lap kai thot (fried chicken lap) or lap kai krop (crispy chicken lap), according to food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu. It’s a deep-fried version of an Isan grilled meat salad and emblematic of a modern trend of deep-fried classic dishes. See also larb moo tod. v