10 Overlooked Thai Dishes in Chicago from Leela Punyaratabandhu of 'SheSimmers'

[Photographs: Leela Punyaratabandhu]

Editor's Note: Many of you are probably familiar with Leela Punyaratabandhu, both for her excellent blog SheSimmers and from the My Thai posts she's written here on Serious Eats. She also lives in Chicago, making her probably the best person to consult about Thai food in the city. And, to be sure, she has opinions on the matter. Check out her guide to ten great Thai dishes to find around Chicago.

In this post, I will share with you my recommendations for ten Thai restaurant dishes that can be found in Chicago and its suburbs. These represent some of the dishes that I think are underrated and overlooked by most diners. There are more to recommend, of course, and I'm not even scratching the surface with these ten. But these should suffice for now. I'll tackle more in due course.

SheSimmer's Criteria for Ordering Thai Food in Chicago

Before we go any further, I need to give you a fair warning: my recommendations are highly subjective and perhaps should not be trusted. Yes, I am dangerously biased.

The criteria that I use to evaluate a Thai dish and a Thai restaurant are firmly rooted in my upbringing in Thailand. I can't help it; I can't mute that part of who I am. I can't pretend to be a blank slate when I go everywhere with mental baggage of what a dish should look and taste like based on my eating experience. This obviously affects how I form opinions.

1. Dishes Should be True to Their Name

For example, I have eaten great Northern Thai pork curry, kaeng hang le (แกงฮังเล)—and we're talking the kind you'd find at some of the locals' favorite places in Chiang Mai—numerous times since I was a kid. Therefore, I have a fixed idea of what I personally look for. So when I come across a version of it in Chicago that departs greatly from what is stored in my brain, my mind says that this is not kaeng hang le—at least not a good one. And that, I admit, might be unfair.

2. Dishes Should Be Difficult to Make at Home

Tac Quick's Shrimp Paste Rice (khao khluk kapi ข้าวคลุกกะปิ)

Tac Quick's Shrimp Paste Rice

If I think a dish can be made at home in less than 30 minutes and kept in the fridge to eat over the course of 2-3 days, I won't order it. I cook Thai food at home all the time, and when I eat out at a Thai restaurant, I want the things that I know I either won't or can't make at home.

These include multi-step and/or multi-component dishes (e.g. shrimp paste fried rice with all the trimmings) and dishes that need to be made right before you eat them and self-destruct shortly after (e.g. most salads including som tam, green papaya salad). This means that I hardly order curry, fried rice, or soup. A huge spread of Northeastern Thai dishes to eat with sticky rice among friends, on the other hand, I do. Ditto with a dish that has components deep-fried individually and put together into a salad that can't be refrigerated and reheated.

3. Dishes Trump Restaurants

When it comes to Thai food in the United States, I believe it makes more sense to recommend specific dishes than restaurants. This is because it's very rare that you will find a Thai restaurant that is good at making all types of dishes.


Although it may not seem like it, a typical Thai restaurant menu is actually a hodgepodge of items ranging from street foods to home-style dishes to noodles sold from a boat to regional dishes. If you've wondered why a Thai restaurant that has mastered Khao Soi can serve such lackluster Pad Thai, know that it's common and not at all surprising given the broad range of dishes a Thai restaurant menu has to cover to stay in business.

This means that the more choices on the menu, the more expertise and finesse are required of the cook. Very few restaurants have met the expectations set by their extensive menus. The mere fact that one restaurant offers the so-called "secret menu" or "Thai menu" in and of itself doesn't say much about how a restaurant performs compared to its competitors or how "authentic" its menu offerings are. In other words, a dish is good because it's good; whether it's found in the regular menu or the "secret Thai menu" has nothing to do with its quality.

Because of these factors, I have focused on specific dishes in my ten recommendations. These dishes are well executed and, in opinion, worth the money. Without further ado, let's take a look at the ten Thai restaurant dishes that you should eat in Chicago. Click here to take a look at the slideshow, or check out the picks individually below.