Rosded's Fried Wide Rice Noodles with Chicken and Eggs (kuai-tiao khua kai ก๋วยเตี๋ยวคั่วไก่)
Now, this is the kind of thing I order when I eat out—something I know for a fact would be hard to make at home without a powerful professional gas range. A good kuai-tiao khua kai must come with well-charred wide rice noodles and the "wok scent." Rosded delivers just those things.
If they added lye-soaked squid along with the chicken and served the finished dish on a bed of green lettuce, I would suddenly be transported back to the streets of Bangkok. But you know what? This simplified version isn't bad at all.
Rosded Restaurant, 2308 West Leland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625 (map); 773-334-9055
Spoon Thai's "Naem Khao Thawt" (yam naem khao thot ยำแหนมข้าวทอด)
I can't leave out this favorite among Chicagoan Thai food lovers. I like naem (fermented raw pork sausage), but I don't like it raw (which is how it's traditionally served). And if there's one dish that would convince me to eat my naem uncooked, it's this one. There are just so many textures and flavors going on here, yet everything jives together so well. You can eat this as a salad—something to nosh along with a glass of cold beer. Or you can eat it as an entrée—a one-dish meal, as we Thais call it.
Curried rice croquettes are deep-fried until crispy on the outside and crumbled up into small pieces. The rice then gets mixed with small pieces of naem, fresh ginger slivers, roasted peanuts, some herbs, and a lime-fish sauce dressing. Spoon's version is simple and different from what you would normally get in Bangkok, but it doesn't mean it's not good. I think they do a wonderful job with this unique salad here.
Tac Quick's Shrimp Paste Rice (khao khluk kapi ข้าวคลุกกะปิ)
This is not exactly fried rice that comes with a collection of eclectic add-ons; it is actually a main course rice-based salad. The various components are presented separately on the same plate, signaling an invitation for you to thoroughly mix everything before consuming so that all of the varied yet complementary flavors and textures that make this dish such a delicacy are represented in each bite.
Tac Quick has done justice to this lesser known and not-so-easy-to-find classic Thai one-dish meal; theirs is, to date, the best in the city. You can tell they go all out to preserve the integrity of the dish down to the little details: perfectly flavored shrimp paste rice, glistening lacquered sweet pork, crispy dried shrimp on the side, thin ribbons of egg crêpe, fresh bird's eye chilies, and slivers of tart green mango. There's no cutting corners here.
Sticky Rice's Northern Thai tomato-pork-chili dip (nam prik ong น้ำพริกอ่อง)
When a restaurant brands itself as specializing in Northern Thai cuisine—and that seems to be the case with Sticky Rice—it makes sense to focus your attention on the pertinent section of the menu. And once your eyes are there, you can't miss this ruddy jewel from Lanna: nam prik ong. Don't let the color scare you; the red hue comes more from the tomatoes than the chilies, which means this tart, salty, savory dip is pretty mild. And, yes, you want it.
And since you're in a Northern Thai's house, you probably want to do what Northern Thais do. To that end, you want an order or two of fried pork skin to go with this dip (hooray for pork on pork!) as well as a basket of warm sticky rice. Take a couple of tablespoonfuls of the sticky rice and knead it with your fingertips to form a compact oblong ball. Then you use the rice ball to scoop up some of the pork dip into your mouth. For the next bite, use a piece of crispy pork rind as the scooper. Then change it up a bit and use a piece of fresh vegetable that comes with the dip to scoop it up. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Rosded's Beef Curry Noodles (kuai-tiao kaeng ก๋วยเตี๋ยวแกง)
Rice noodles, tender chunks of beef, and hard-boiled egg in mild-yet-flavorful curried coconut milk-based broth form a most satisfying Muslim-style one-dish meal which Bangkokians can't get enough of. This item is found in Rosded's Thai menu, and it deserves more attention than what it has been getting.
Take advantage of the seasoning caddy which they should put on the table for you. If you want it tart, add some chili vinegar to it. Not hot enough, that's what the dried chili powder is for. Noodle eating in Thailand is all about customizing to your heart's content.
Rosded Restaurant, 2308 West Leland Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625 (map); 773-334-9055
Tac Quick's Northeastern Soured Sausage (sai krok isan ไส้กรอกอีสาน)
This quintessential Northeastern Thai fermented/soured sausage is one of those things where the disparity between a good one and an almost good one is so incredibly vast that nothing but a good one is worth consuming. Shining brightly amidst many inferior sai krok isan wannabes in Chicago is this version at Tac Quick. It is a good one.
Isan sausage at Tac is soured just right: not mushy due to excessive amount of rice, grilled just before serving to give you that desirable smoky aroma, and served with all the accompaniments one would expect. I have yet to find a better version anywhere.
Opart Thai's "Pad Ped Pla Dook" (phat phet pla duk ผัดเผ็ดปลาดุก)
Opart does a great job with this dish featuring chunks of boneless catfish, green beans, and wedges of Thai eggplants in red curry sauce. The flavor is right on. The texture of each main component is perfect. The green beans are tender-crisp; the eggplants, which are notoriously prone to being overcooked and mushy, still retain their textural integrity; the catfish pieces are deep-fried briefly just so they form a crust. This rice-curry shop staple is treated with respect here. This dish is my favorite thing to eat at Opart.
White Pearl's Northeastern Spicy Chopped Beef Salad (lap nuea ลาบเนื้อ)
People need to know about this little place by a gas station in Elgin. On the outside, nothing points to this place being worth your time of day, let alone a long drive out of the city. Signage boasting "Authentic Asian Cuisine" with English, Chinese, and Lao characters hardly garners any confidence. That still doesn't change even when you've stepped inside or started going through the eclectic Chinese-Lao-Thai-Vietnamese menu. Everything about this place seems wrong.
That is until you try what I consider their best dish: beef lap (more commonly spelled "larb"). Hand-chopped beef is lightly and briefly cooked along with tenderized tripe to form the base of this Northeastern Thai/Lao salad. White Pearl's lap represents a much more herbal, rustic, complex, truly regional version of the dish that is better known by its tamer, Centralized Thai avatar. You want to order this, a plate of their regional papaya salad (made with the fresh chilies grown in their parking lot), a plate of fried beef jerky, a plate of their glorious Lao sausages (unfermented), and a basket of sticky rice. This meal ensemble is worth the drive out there. Other things on the menu? Not so much.
White Pearl, 265 S Mclean Blvd, Elgin, IL 60123 (map); 847-695-3399
Aroy Thai's Squid Stir-fry with Salted Duck Eggs (pla muek phat khai khem ปลาหมึกผัดไข่เค็ม)
I thought long and hard about recommending a dish containing two ingredients that would hardly make people, except for hardcore Asian food lovers, salivate: squid and salted eggs. But I have to. It's that good. Salted duck egg is an umami-loaded source of salinity with a Midas touch; everything it anoints turns into gold, at least as far as I'm concerned.
My feelings about the various dishes served at this much-raved restaurant and its Thai menu can at best be described as mixed and wildly fluctuating. But this dish never disappoints. I could go there, order nothing else but this dish to eat with a bowl of rice, and I'd leave perfectly sated and happy.
Siam Noodle and Rice's "Basil Beef Meat Ball" (phat phet no mai kap lukchin ผัดเผ็ดหน่อไม้กับลูกชิ้น)
It's somewhat ironic that this dish of rice topped with red curry-based stir-fry of bamboo shoots and bouncy Asian-style meat balls with a kiss of Thai basil is found in the Chef's Specials section of the menu. This is because to most Bangkokians, there's really nothing special about the dish—at least not enough to justify its chef's specialty status. We love it all right. But this is an uncomplicated, down-home dish that you'd find at street-side rice-curry stalls, school cafeterias, and some low-end food courts. Let me put it this way: if this is served at a lunch buffet of a fancy hotel, fits could be thrown.
But here lies another irony which cancels out the previous one: it's precisely because this dish is considered so ordinary that most Thai restaurants stateside don't serve it, making its rare presence here special. And, boy, do they do a good job with it at Siam Noodle and Rice, one of the most underrated Thai restaurants in Chicago.