Go Beef or Go Home (Within Reason) at Thai Aree
As with Lao Hunan and Spoon Thai, I don't step foot in Thai Aree without an ordering plan. I've been eating at this quiet Irving Park spot since I moved to Chicago, always selecting a variety of dishes from a reliable set curated by the owner, Eddie—and always to great success. But as much as I love the Thai sausage or the Nam Sod or the Mee Krob, my heart really belongs to the charcoal grilled beef. I can't get enough, and my wife and I always makes the obligatory joke about how we need at least one plate of beef per person. So on a recent visit in, I decided to throw caution, balance, and common decency to the wind and make a meal comprised of what I love best about Thai Aree.
The dish that prompted this adventure in the first place, the Neu Num Tok ($8.95) is what lesser steak salads aspire to. Smoky charcoal flavor lends a taste of summer to the tender, thinly sliced beef (especially welcome now, in the dead of winter), and the toasted rice powder and ground dried chilies add fragrant nuttiness and bracing heat, respectively. And don't forget the veggies: red onions and scallions pack a biting one two punch, cilantro and Thai basil provide herbal freshness, and the iceberg lettuce manages to sop sauce whilst remaining crunchy crisp throughout. It's a miracle dish, one I have no qualms referring to as "beef salad"—even in polite company.
The Garlic Beef ($10.95) is as it sounds, with little more than a viscous pool of sweet, fish sauce-laced dressing and a handful of chopped chilies and cilantro to round out the plate. Iceberg lettuce leaves, long beans, and tomatoes are served on the side for DIY wraps. Though a simple, unadulterated plate like this would seem the perfect delivery vehicle for the charcoal beef, this dish is ultimately too much of a good thing. Without the bright acidity of the previous salad's lime based sauce, the beef here tastes flat and oily, and the dish lacks the appealing complexity that makes the salad such a success.
Beef Noodle Kee Mow ($8.95) puts the protein back into perspective. Utilized here as a garnish to the drunken noodles, it shares equal billing with crunchy sprouts, juicy tomatoes, and an herbaceous handful of Thai basil. Though the heavy noodles lack the black bean funk and bitter collard bite of a similar take on the dish further north, a drizzle of this or that—especially the vinegar based dried chili sauce from the condiment caddy—is all it takes to jolt the plate to life.
Reflecting on the experiment, I think it's safe to say that I flew a little too close to the big, beefy sun on this one. Either the first or third dish on its own would be a highlight to any meal here; combining all three gilds the lily, weighing you down and prompting you to swear off burgers for at least a week. Next time, I'll save the devil may care attitude to how heavy handed I get with the nam pla prik, not how many plates of beef I can find to crowd the table.