So, by tiny, I mean tiny. When I walked into the amazingly-high-on-the-scale-of-Asian-cuteness room with an eating buddy (the kind of guy who would try the house specialty off the floor in the back of the sketchiest kitchen in the dirtiest part of town in the name of culinary exploration--my kind of guy), half of the dozen or so seats were filled by a group of Thai kids. It was about 11:00pm or so, and we made a move to one of the empty seats. The waitress, appropriately dressed in a RUN DMC t-shirt, came over and asked if we had reservations. We looked at each other, as though one of us would have thought to make a reservation at a place like this, and sheepishly squeaked out a "no." Evidently, there was a group that had the table we were at reserved. We got sad for a second, then noticed the two stools in the window. We asked if we could sit there, and she happily obliged. Yet as soon as they saw us sit down, everyone in the place instantly feared utter destruction of the tiny springy plastic stools by this overgrown-despite-having-Japanese-genes ogre named "me". The group of kids offered two of their seats to us, and they squished in together, quite a touching display of humanity, if not seat preservation. We happily accepted and opened our dark Portuguese session beer, Sagres Brune, which strangely enough, went great with what we were about to have.
So we took a look at the menu. Naturally, we were first given the typical menu of so many marginal Thai restaurants. You know the usual offenders: pad Thai, Thai iced coffee and the like. We again prepared to embrace sadness, but both knew there was more to be had here. We looked at the kids next to us. They were eating congee, a type of rice porridge served with several flavorful accoutrements. That's what we came for, inspired by a Chicago Reader article about the place. We asked if there was a menu for it; the waitress slowly smiled and brought us a couple. Of course, the entire menu was written in Thai, thus her smile. She began a willing and earnest translation of the menu; I spared her the trouble and turned to the gold mine of knowledge sitting next to us (not my usual way of describing college-aged kids busy text messaging and iPodding and talking about whatever it is they talk about) and asked if they wouldn't mind one-upping their seating maneuver gesture by ordering for us. They happily obliged (what friendly kids!) and ordered us a big bowl of congee and five of the sides to go with it, explaining that we'd get a discount if we ordered five. Everyone happy, we thanked them and waited for our food.
Here's what we got, in addition to the congee, translation aided by the Reader article referenced above:
- Ong Choy sauteed with garlic, chiles and black bean sauce. Ong Choy is a Chinese water spinach, something I've never knowingly eaten. The stems are hollow, and in some circles in China, the overeating of the stems is discouraged as they are believed to leave the eater hollow inside as well. I respectfully disagree and would eat these all day long. Nice and crispy and the sauce full of flavor.
- A Thai omelette, known as Khai Jiaw, with crabmeat on a mess of shaved carrots. Sweet, sweet crab. Simple. The egg reminded me of omelettes my grandmother made me in Japan. So nostalgia was on my side. My eating buddy didn't seem as excited. But maybe that's because the plate was sitting directly in front of me and he had the ong choy in front of him.
- Yam Lap Cheong. To quote the Reader article: Yam "rhymes with 'some'—a Thai word referring to a melange of things tossed together in a dressing that comprises the salty, sour, sweet flavors with some heat". Lap Cheong is Chinese sausage. It was sliced thinly and served in a sauce with great big flavors: sweet and sour, which we guessed was from cane vinegar, heat from chiles, saltiness from the sausage, sharpness from shallots, and that big brightness from cilantro. I am drooling. I love sour flavors and this had it, backed up by that big fattiness of the sausage.
- A bowl full of little clams, fried with flavor. No idea what was in here. But salty and rich; tasty little morsels of clam. I dipped the shell into the congee and used it as a spoon for maximum flavor harvesting.
- A dried pork, deep fried, with a spicy sauce. Kind of like a pork jerky, but hot and spicy.
Nearing midnight and towards the end of the meal, at which point our friendly neighbors had moved on and another huge group came in, filling every seat in the place and still needing more to accommodate them and their case of beer and bottle of whiskey, I asked my friend if he thought it would be uncouth to pour all the delicious sauce into the congee. He said he didn't think so, and I thought back to the time I licked a plate at Schwa. I went ahead and poured away. We finished our beers and paid up, nice and cheap, and headed out. The first of our big snowfall had just started; I decided to walk home in it and enjoy the night and let some of the spice settle. Cold snow, hot belly. Welcome to the neighborhood Me Dee, and thanks to those kids for being so cool.