My visit to Arun’s Thai: the magic of approaching food as a postgraduate research project

Ask me about my favorite Chicago neighborhoods, and I’ll have two words for you: Albany Park. Every time I visit one of Chicago’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, I’m in for a treat. I love the people – warm, friendly, bursting with excitement and imagination -, the streets – a mosaic of cultural symbols seamlessly intertwined – and, of course, the food. Many popular Chicago restaurants are located in Albany Park, yet none of them manages to capture the hearts of minds of diners the world over like Arun’s Thai does, which I got the chance to visit recently.

Located on a corner lot on North Kedzie Avenue, next to a grocery store, Arun’s Thai Restaurant looks rather unassuming from the outside. And yet, once you get past the massive entrance doors, you enter a world of magic and mystery, populated by larger-than-life designs, characters and stories. It is here that Chef Arun Sampanthavivat uses his expertise to skillfully reimagine the cuisine that’s closest to his heart: Thai cuisine.

Featured in Patricia Schultz’s New York Times bestseller 1000 Places to See before You Die, Arun’s Thai is the quintessential well-established Chicago restaurant. Not too big and thus in danger of overstretching or losing its identity, not too small and thus tempted to cut corners while running the race for fame, Arun’s Thai tells a story about culture, community, and art – and it does that at its own pace.

According to the restaurant’s website, the beautiful interior “reflects the harmonious balance of contemporary simplicity and classical elegance” – and that, to me, is a perfect description of the place.

The paintings throughout the main dining area illustrate the life of the Buddha as well as classic Thai fairy-tales and mythology.

The long single-piece mural which decorates one section of the restaurant is truly breathtaking, and even more impressive when you discover that Chef Arun’s brother was the painter. Rich in colors, movements and symbolism, this mural, like everything else inside the restaurant, exhibits painstaking attention to detail and a commitment to authenticity.

Chef Arun’s attention to detail gains a whole new meaning once you read more about his academic background. After a BA degree in literature & foreign languages completed in Thailand and an MA in International Relations completed in Japan, Arun Sampanthavivat traveled to the United States to continue his academic career at the University of Chicago, where he received an MA in Political Science. While working to complete his research findings as a PhD candidate, Arun was asked by friends to be a part of an incipient restaurant project. He got involved, but then his friends abandoned the project – and Arun’s restaurateur career commenced.

As mentioned on the restaurant’s website, “With the discipline of an academic, Arun designed the restaurant’s interior, created an imaginative menu, further developed his intuitive flair for cooking, purchased the food, greeted guests, waited on tables, and balanced the books.” While lacking formal training as a chef, Arun nevertheless had the knowledge, the life experience, and last but not least the passion for perfect details and commitment to research that would come to characterize his cooking and overall approach at Arun’s Thai.

With Chef Arun Sampanthavivat at the recent media event at Arun’s Thai

Intricate details and perfection in every bite were the hallmarks of the dishes I sampled at the media event hosted by Chef Arun to celebrate this year’s Flavors of Albany Park Restaurant Crawl. The tasting was neatly organized into several stations, representing dishes from various regions of Thailand.

Chef Arun went through the trouble of providing a printed menu with detailed information about each dish. So thoughtful, so unique – and so unsurprising, coming from a researcher-turned-restaurateur:

Station #1 brought together dishes from the central part of Thailand, including spring rolls with scallion, cilantro, chicken sausage and tofu accentuated by hot Asian mustard and a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Such a creative flavor combination!

Meanwile, station #2 offered a spectacular display of Thai curries…

…with an extensive range of accompaniments.

Attention to detail prevailed in cooking, presenting, and serving – yet again!

The first dish I had from this station was a pork spare-rib curry with rice somen pasta, prepared in a way which is characteristic to Thailand’s Northern region. It was flavored by fermented black beans, roasted chilies, shallot, cilantro, and scallion, and was accompanied by pickled cabbage, bean sprouts, wild arugula, fried shallot, and fried hot chilies.

I loved the fresh flavors and soupy consistency of this curry, which to me resembled a fabric with a myriad of intricate details sewn to perfection. I was particularly excited to familiarize myself with the dried red cotton flowers added to this dish, which are a staple of Northern Thai cuisine.

We needed a gentle start to our journey through Thai curries – and with this curry, we had it!

Server assembling the pork spare-rib curry under Chef Arun’s instructions

Next came a sweet prawn and coconut milk curry with rice somen pasta, which was representative of the style of cooking found in the central plans of Thailand. Silky and milky, the texture of this curry was a delight to me. What a perfect pairing with the crispy fried okra, chrysanthemum, and inogi mushrooms! This was also my first encounter with fried chrysanthemum greens, which I found to be slightly sweet, crunchy, and overall delicious in that particular combination.

From the South of Thailand came the hottest dish of the day, a spicy red snapper curry with rice somen pasta, lemongrass, galangal (Thai ginger), garlic, hot chilies and shallot, with boiled bean sprouts and pickled cabbage and sweet daikon radish as accompaniments. The curry was almost too spicy for me to eat, and this made the inclusion of the mild ingredients (such as bean sprouts) all the more important.

I then went to explore station #3. First on the menu were rice noodles with pork, a dish characteristic to Koraj City in the Northeast region of Thailand.

This dish featured stir-fried rice noodles in a sweet and sour tamarind sauce with pork, scallion and bean sprouts, and was garnished with thin omelet strips. The pork was sweet and tender, and provided a nice contrast to the super spicy curry I’d just had at station #2. I also appreciated the inclusion of omelet strips and pork rinds, which added another layer of protein richness to the main element, the sweet pork.

Speaking of pork rinds, I was so happy to see them on Chef Arun’s menu! I have vivid recollections of eating pork rinds as a child – we had very little food back in those days, and any kind of meat was a delicacy. I remember mom taking these super hot from the pan and spreading them over the colorful plastic table cloth for me and my dad to savor there and then (we were so hungry!). The flavors, the textures, the presentation – all came together to bring back cherished family moments I’d long thought forgotten.

Pork rinds served at Arun’s Thai Restaurant

Ending the trip through Thai regions and cuisines was chef Arun’s chicken with holy basil, a classic dish popular in Thailand’s capital city Bangkok. From the delicately chopped Amish chicken to the soft bits of mushrooms, the hot basil leaves and the chili and garlic sauce used as a stir fry base, all of the ingredients worked in harmony to create a snapshot of a sophisticated, magical cuisine.Β 

At that point I was running late – and yet, I couldn’t leave without taking a bite of the scrumptious looking desserts, from chocolate mousse cakes and Saint Marc cakes…

…to freshly cut summer fruits. So beautiful and mindful, at the same time!

I left Arun’s Thai feeling blessed to be able to experience dishes of such high caliber, so rich in meaning and perspectives. In a city which has it all, food- and entertainment-wise, chef Arun’s works of art read like an accomplished PhD project, written from the heart and subject to re-imagining, in a perpetual search for perfection. What a memorable excursion through Thai food! Highly recommended πŸ™‚

*Disclaimer: While I received a complimentary tasting to facilitate this review, all opinions expressed here are my own.

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