Knockout Noodles: Spoon Thai

Knockout Noodles

Reviews of noodle dishes.


Boat Noodles [Photographs: Roger Kamholz]

When people take to the internets to praise Spoon Thai—and I wouldn't be the first by a long shot—they usually do so citing dishes off the Western Avenue restaurant's so-called "secret" menu. Secret because, for a while there, Spoon had a menu written in English that was given to non-Thai eaters, and another menu written in elegant Thai script, which listed several dishes that went unmentioned on the former. If you were Thai, or happened to be in the know, you received (or asked for) this one. An intrepid non-Thai diner went to the trouble of translating the menu a few years back, and now Spoon includes copies of this typed-out translation as a coda of the overall dine-in menu. Among these items the restaurant once assumed to be too intense, pungent, and spicy for the American palate are a handful of noodle dishes. But in review after review, they seemed to get less love, by volume, in favor of other more popular dishes. I had to investigate; and besides, Spoon's slogan—"Fabulous Noodle Dishes!"—may as well have been a tractor beam.

First up, the "boat" noodles ($6.95), also known as kuay tiaw reua. I had heard it described as the Thai answer to Vietnamese phở, and that turned out to be pretty spot-on. It's a spicy-sweet noodle soup chock-full of tender beef morsels. In fact, at first glance, I thought I was served a big bowl of beef in broth (and I probably wouldn't have complained). But the noodles were indeed in there, just lurking below the surface, soaking up the lusciously bright flavor of Spoon's spicy beef broth. They're roughly half-inch-wide rice noodles, cooked to a pleasing, just-past-al-dente bite. Sprigs of cilantro, bean sprouts, and Chinese broccoli leaves provide a measure of roughage, but really this dish is all about the heady interplay of the noodles, beef, and broth—which was delightfully punchy at first sip, with a little sweetness to balance out the heat, and a lingering umami flavor.


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The maa-maa khii mao ($6.95) was also tasty, but didn't set off the pyrotechnics quite like the boat noodles. This dish is made with Mama brand instant noodles (think the Thai version of ramen), tofu, seafood, and veggies, stir-fried in a sweet-and-savory sauce (note: I ordered it sans seafood). The vegetation version included carrots, both julienne and wafer-thin chips, baby corn, snow peas, bean sprouts, and bok choy. I had been told by a friend and Spoon regular that this dish is akin to kids' menu fare—flavorful but not nearly as spicy as other, more adult, dishes. That description essentially held up. The tofu was great, but I came for spice.


And I found it with the sukii-yaki naam/haeng ($6.95), a Thai interpretation of sukiyaki that can be ordered two ways: "naam" ("wet," aka in broth) or "haeng" ("dry," aka stir-fried and sauced up). Spoon uses a wispy cellophane (or glass) noodle made from mung beans for this dish. I opted for the dry route and chose pork as my protein.


This plate may not be much to look at, but it's darn good. Not a scrap remained after I laid waste to this piles of delicate noodles and sweet chunks of pork. (The dueling richness and heat quickly gets addictive.) The scallion, asparagus, bok choy (spines and leaves), and scrambled egg mixed in help to add varying textures, but my favorite ingredient here was the heat—not overpowering or numbing, not heat for heat's sake, but a fresh, bright expression of chile.

As for the "Fabulous Noodle Dishes!" claim, I'd have to concur.

Spoon Thai

4608 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60625 (map)