Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Eat Fire
Thai Avenue

When I was lucky enough to hook up with the LA hounds, I was most pleased with the restaurant choice proposed. Renu Nakorn. While no longer considered the most worthy of Thai restaurants in LA, it was still considered a top choice. More importantly, I eagerly anticipated my chance to eat fire. Food God, Jonathan Gold told me the Issan specialties at Renu Nakorn would sear my nostril hairs. I would eat fire. Oh how wrong he was. Renu produced a few fine dishes but not an overall great meal. And I did not eat fire.

Chowhound Zim, however, had been hot on the trail of a newish Thai place in Chicago, Thai Avenue. Zim sussed out that the people behind Thai Avenue were Issan. Well, I was convinced I could pull out of them, an entirely Issan meal. A meal that would burn down my goatee. During the course of a meal by me and a meal by the brilliant one, and several phone calls, I did manage to arrange a small banquet dedicated to eating fire. The brilliant one, though, added an especially interesting aside. While the owners of Thai Avenue were Issan, from the Northeast of Thailand, the cook was from the North. Our final menu was to include dishes both North and Northeast.

On our night of eating fire, Thai Avenue delivered three categories of dishes. Dishes on the English menu but sometimes not translated from Thai, dishes on a menu with Thai script and dishes made for us. A lot of the food featured heavy doses of red chile, but no one walked away from a dish crying. Eating fire served a bettor purpose. It woke us up to a full range of flavors, bits of sweet, near rancid, quite-pungent. Also, the fire came fast and furious early, so later in the night, as course after course came by, it seemed a something that never really happened.

From the menu written in English but not necessarily translated, we had the following spicy dishes: beef salad, exploded catfish salad, chicken laab, bamboo shoot salad, and papaya salad with preserved crabs. The crab gives the salad a taste almost of bilge water, but actually, unlike other times when having the dish this way, the sea did not overpower. Instead, looking like a bad case of measles, the papaya salad's cover of red chile made it too hard to focus on any other taste sensations. I really liked Thai Avenue's exploded catfish salad, Thai Captain Crunch as we have come to call this dish of crispy catfish essence. At Thai Avenue, the crunch seemed to float above the salad and dressing, so that you got both parts but at separate moments. I also liked the beef salad totally intertwined with fresh mint, a great duo.

From the menu written in English but not necessarily translated, we had the following non-spicy dishes: fried chicken, grilled pork neck and Issan sausage. Some of the other reports of the dinner on Chowhound say the meal was not really spicy. I think it was just the changing in dishes mid-meal. After so many dishes infused with so many herbs and spices, we took a big turn to dishes of fat and chew. All three of these things were fantastic, but I liked best, the pork neck. It combined the best features of pork, the fat of bacon, with a muscular chew of a good chop. The fried chicken, nearly all wings but a stray leg, was good but not quite as good as Spoon Thai.

From the menu written only in Thai script, we had a very interesting and different dish for me. Northern style laab, done with pork. When I ate this dish, I said, in a good way, it was weird. It really had a spicing I could not quite put my finger on. I looked in Thompson's book. He has a recipe for this dish. He notes that Northern Thai cooking uses a spice from the Ash shrub that gives a numbing flavor like Szechuan peppercorns, and he actually suggests Szechuan peppercorns as a replacement in the recipe. I wonder if Thai Avenue used Szechuan peppercorns to produce that "weird" flavor. The other characteristic of Northern laab is the lack of lime in the marinade. While people scoffed at me, I call this dish, Thai sloppy joes.

Finally, Thai Avenue cooked for us, a few dishes not normally on any menu. I prodded them into "kha-nom-jean-ngyow." This is a most typical Northern Thai dish. Served, I understand, mostly as street food. It was the last dish served that night, and because of that, it lost some pizzazz. It is something that could stand on its own as A meal, like some skewed Thai version of cassolet of something. The dish consists of three components. First, there is plain, bland vermicelli noodles, a base. Second, there are assorted garnishes included flash fried chilies, tiny shreds of preserved mustard, bean sprouts and cabbage slivers. Last is the dish itself, a large pot of alternating shades of red and reddish gray. Ground pork, rectangles of pork blood, squishy cut-in-half cherry tomatoes, and the chile soaked witch's brew that bound it all together. The overall taste was mostly sour notes, the pork chunks had tang, but also, each spoonful was dominated by whatever condiments you grabbed that time.

Pic by Gwiv

The other made for us dishes, were two nam priks or chile dips. One was green from roasted jalepeno, the other red nearly entirely of shrimp paste. The former dip was served with expertly carved raw and steamed vegetables including long beans and bamboo shoots; the latter came with small fishes. Vegetables with dips are a most standard part of Thai meals, Thompson's book has a whole chapter on them, but they are something rarely seen and ordered in Thai places in Chicago (at least). A few things, I believe, limit their availability on menu's. These are hard dishes to make. The require a lot of roasting and grinding and such. Then, I think eaters often just look at these dishes as basically crudites, party food, not as something serious. Last, these can be the most aggressive, hardest tastes to handle. While the green chile dip was surprisingly mild, the red was intensely stinky. For me, these dishes are really make the meal, "Thai."


Pic by Gwiv

We finished with two desserts, one hot one cold, as our waitress suggested. Thai Avenue brought us two large punch bowls. Cold was a mixture of red jello, water chestnuts and soon-to-be-watery condensed milk. Seemed easy, but it was surprisingly good. Hot was the classic dish of steamed taro balls in coconut milk, the balls possessing that, chomp- your-gums-many-many- times-texture, that I find about ideal.

Thai Avenue clearly joined the ranks of great Thai places in Chicago. Lots more reactions to the dinner can be read starting here.

Thai Avenue
4949 N Broadway

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