New Year's splash
In honor of this weekend's kickoff of Songkran (Thai New Year), we tracked down the sources for the fest's food so you can celebrate year-round.
Whose great idea was it to celebrate the New Year in spring, so people could go bananas in the streets, squirting each other with water guns and launching H2O balloons at any moving target? The Thais, that’s who. The Thai holiday Songkran (taken from Sanskrit, meaning “solar year”) kicks off Friday 13. It’s a water focused fest that began as a way to honor Buddhist images and elders by pouring water over their hands, but over time has morphed into an all-out water fight. Locally, Songkran is celebrated annually at Thai Buddhist Temple (7059 W 75th St, 708-594-8100). This year’s event starts with a party Saturday 14 from 6pm to midnight followed by an alms-offering ceremony Sunday at 10am.
Adults attend to pay homage while kids go to vie for the Miss Songkran pageant title. We go for the food. Dozens of Thai community members come carting trays of Thai eats for Saturday’s main event. For those who can’t make it, we’ve tracked down the restaurants supplying the food.
3558 N Pulaski Rd at Addison St, 773-725-0911
For many a birthday-party goer, this Northwest Side restaurant is the spot for throwing down with a BYOB karaoke bash, complete with a buffet and karaoke hosts sure to be recruited by a cruise ship any day now. Co-owner and chef Wanda Chanpanich is a one-woman machine in the kitchen, where she’s spent the last few days prepping to make her stir-fried catfish with chile paste for the expected crowd of 500 that will flock to the Songkran Festival. If you miss her at the event, the dish is also on the restaurant’s regular menu.
Thai Wild Ginger
2203 N Clybourn Ave between Webster and Greenview Aves, 773-883-0344
It’s impossible to visit this Lincoln Park stalwart and not be charmed by affable owner “Tommy” Nuntaya. His friendly demeanor and dependable Thai standards are the reason this spot is celebrating its 20th birthday soon. For this weekend’s festival, Nuntaya is offering nam prik ong, a Northern Thai pork-and-tomato dip typically served with fresh cucumbers, green beans and cabbage. The dish isn’t on his menu at the restaurant, but Nuntaya says he’ll serve it on request. Also look for his fresh mango with coconut milk and sugarcane-sweetened sticky rice.
2308 W Leland Ave between Lincoln and Western Aves, 773-334-9055
When Tanapan Suetrong and Somkid Wongwal partnered to open this homey little restaurant in 1976, they quickly became the go-to spot for red curry catfish. No paste or powders are used; instead, a fresh curry is made from red bell peppers, Thai red chiles, onions, garlic, lemongrass, salt and a few other ingredients. For the fest, the chef-owners will serve two variations: plaa dùk thâwt kràwp phàt phèt (crispy fried catfish in thick red curry with string beans) and plaa dùk phàt phèt (fresh catfish in a soupier red curry with ginger root and Thai globe eggplant). Both dishes are available on the Thai menu, and there’s an English translation for non-Thai speakers.
1828 W Montrose Ave at Honore St, 773-989-0818
Pad thai may have a bad rap as the most pedestrian Anglo favorite of Thai menus across town, but there’s something to be said for a really great rendition. Roong Petch’s cooks aim to honor the festival by doing what they do at the restaurant: using the best fish sauce, tangiest tamarind paste and freshest cilantro.
2201 S Wentworth Ave at Cermak Rd, 312-573-9999
It makes sense that this Chinatown restaurant—named for a Malaysian state—is participating in the festival at the Thai temple; Buddhism is freely practiced in Malaysia. The cooks will bring the restaurant’s signature dish, penang curry. Compared to Thai red curry, penang has more classically Indian flavors thanks to baking spices, turmeric, cumin and coriander.
5014 N Broadway at Argyle St, 773-561-5345
Ek-Anant (“Eddie”) Sunggoraneewan is one of the friendliest and well-known members of the Thai community, which explains how he’s kept his shoebox-size grocery store open since 1974. Expect to find two of the shop’s specialties at the festival: Thai fortune rolls (similar to Chinese fortune cookies) and pad ped moo pah, a superspicy dish typically made with wild boar. Thai Grocery’s version, however, substitutes stir-fried pork hock.
1241 Chicago Ave, Evanston, 847-332-2775
Holy basil leaves are the heart and soul of this restaurant’s specialty, pad kapao kai, which will be served at Songkran. Minced chicken is stir-fried with spicy Thai chiles, garlic, a touch of both oyster and soy sauces, and a fistful of Thai holy basil, an intense strain of the herb with a peppery, minty flavor.
3311 Vollmer Rd, Flossmoor, 708-798-8030
“Everybody in the Thai community knows me and loves my food,” says “Noi” Monaikul, who ran Siam Thai for 21 years in Matteson before relocating to Flossmoor two years ago. Monaikul buys nothing premade, making her steamed pork shumai and vegetarian spring rolls by hand. They’ll be served both at the festival and at her restaurant, but if you visit her booth at Songkran, you’ll also find egg noodles with barbecue pork and fish cake, sticky rice with grilled pork, and a hot-and-sour–like soup of bamboo , quail eggs and fish stomach.
Your Choice Thai Cuisine
1417 Waukegan Rd, Glenview, 847-657-7716
This suburban spot plans to give Col. Sanders a run for his money with its Thai-style fried chicken (a.k.a kai thawt or kai tod). Wings and drumsticks are lightly coated with garlicky, peppery breadcrumbs; fried to a crisp; and served with a sweet chile sauce for dipping.