833 W. Chicago
Rating: Three and a half stars
The old Sunday night take-out standby for members of the tribe used to be Chinese. I myself have nothing but fond memories of the Sunday nights of my childhood: waiting to watch whatever was the special Sunday Night Movie on network TV as my mom arranged the signature red and white cylinders and white trapezoidal boxes on wooden trays. We got to eat on television trays and drink pop instead of milk—Sunday nights were special.
The menu was comforting and always from a minimal rotation of favorite dishes. Egg rolls, bbq pork, won ton soup for the kids and hot and sour soup for the grownups. Sweet and sour chicken, in its reddish brown sauce, filled with sweet chunks of canned pineapple, the occasional maraschino cherry, and crisply fried pieces of chicken. Mongolian beef, moo shu pork, cashew chicken. Egg foo young for dad. Fried rice. Almond cookies if we were feeling particularly festive. That is pretty much it. And frankly, until the late 1980s, that was pretty much it for Asian food in general.
When I saw the sushi display at a teenage house party in the movie Valley Girl, I had never heard of it before. But by the time Molly Ringwald tucked into her California roll at lunchtime in The Breakfast Club, sushi was making its way into regular rotation. Not for Sunday night delivery, it rarely travels well, but certainly it became part of our dining with fair consistency. The 1990s brought an Asian explosion here in Chicago, and our palates followed right along. Mongolian BBQ, Korean kim chee, Vietnamese Pho, even regional Chinese cuisine which is far more subtly nuanced than the fried and sticky sweet dishes of my childhood. But nothing made a dent in the delivery department.
Until Thai food came along.
The key to Sunday night dinner is the perfect combination of ease, affordability and comfort. And Thai food, with its soothing noodles, warming soups and curries, and wide variety of appetizers fits the bill perfectly. It doesn’t replace the nostalgia I have for those Sunday night Chinese dinners, but these days I’m far more likely to spend my Sunday nights with a cucumber salad and pad see ew with chicken.
I had always relegated Thai food into that sort of casual Sunday night take-out noodle shop mode, and never really thought much about it. Until I dined at Thalia Spice, a high-end restaurant at Chicago and Green that has introduced me to a whole different side of Thai.
The restaurant is separated into two rooms, and the décor lacks the usual kitsch, opting instead for simple surroundings. The owner, Anna, is likely to be the one greeting you at the door, and she is a dynamo in a tiny package, assuring you that anything you need or want will be taken care of.
I have eaten at Thalia Spice several times, and the service is always impeccable, the food delicious, and the prices very affordable.
Some highlights for me:
The Volcano soup (which they always obligingly make for me with chicken instead of seafood) is creamy and tart with a gentle back of the throat heat and perfect seasoning. A green papaya salad will change your thoughts about papaya forever, and the banana blossom salad is a totally unique taste sensation that is worth checking out. While I am usually not one for wraps and rolls as I am not much of a raw fish girl, I changed my mind when Anna insisted I try a sweet potato roll…the combination of seasoned rice and soft sweet potato, wrapped in seaweed and topped with a creamy sauce made a believer out of me. The Sake bbq ribs are a more sophisticated version of the bbq pork from my childhood, and they even have egg rolls and gyoza if you can’t survive without dumplings and little crispy things before your meal.
Standard Thai fare is elevated here, the noodles perfectly cooked and seasoned, everything impeccably fresh. But as satisfying as the basics are, I highly recommend branching out. The Yaya Noodles, spinach noodles stir fried with veggies and your choice of meat, are a new favorite vying for my attention with my beloved pad see ew. And the honey roasted duck is a celebration. I’m not much of a curry fan, but my friends who are swear by all of Thalia’s versions. And I dare you to be able to tell me which of the five fried rice versions is your favorite. And in case you have a dining companion who isn’t feeling much like Thai, they also have a full selection of sushi and sashimi with some very inventive rolls.
They do a great lunch special, affordable and quick; enough food to keep you going but not make you a nap when you get back to work.
And yes. They do take out and delivery, in case you want to check them out some Sunday night.
Yours in good taste,
NOSH of the week: Staying in the Asian mode, my new favorite ingredient...Korean Black Garlic. These sweet fermented cloves taste like a combination of fig, roasted garlic, and balsamic vinegar, and have the texture of dried dates. I love them on soft cheeses like chevre or brie, chopped fine into dips like tapenade for a little something special, and blended into butter with salt and pepper that I then put under the skin of a chicken before I roast it. www.blackgarlic.com
NOSH food read of the week: The Whole World Over by Julia Glass