Chicagoland: Tongue-Singeing Thai at Thai O'Cha in Darien, IL

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The sort of place that doesn't mess around with heat, unassuming Thai O'Cha in Darien is a hidden gem. [Photographs: Jennifer Olvera]

I could have easily overlooked Thai O'Cha. Then, when I walked in, I easily could have turned around and walked right out. It's... kind of dingy.

See past the surface, though, and there's a great meal in store, especially when you like yours with a bit of fire.

The menu holds all the mainstays. In my experience, nothing has been a letdown. What I keep going back for, though, is the som tom (papaya salad), ($8.95). Crisp, bright and studded with peanuts, crunchy cabbage, string beans, and shards of carrots, it's topped with two wholly unnecessary, crisp-fried shrimp and swathed in slightly funky lime vinaigrette.

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Nearly as pleasing is the yum nuea (beef salad), ($8.95), a simple stunner of grilled beef, cucumber, onion, and cilantro in bracing lime dressing. I order them both extra-spicy, and they're diving.

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If you want to keep things light, there's nothing wrong with one of the above, coupled with a small or large order of straw mushroom-bolstered chicken tom yum soup, ($4.95 or $8.95). Get it spicy, and contend with slices of Thai chile floating within.

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As for entrees, Thai O'Cha serves one of the best renditions of beef basil, ($8.95) I have ever had. It's smoky and garlicky with near-ground meat and a tangle of onions and peppers to seal the deal. The sauce, well, it's addictive.

The one downside is there isn't a lunch menu, so prices can hover higher than you'd expect, depending on your notion of family-style dining. Still, what you get is ultimately a reward.

Thai O'Cha

737 Plainfield Rd, Darien, IL 60561 (map)
630-794-9268

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