"This is a great example of how the Thais really care about presentation and beauty in their food," said Rebecca Wheeler, Ethnic Food Tour Leader.
On a recent trip with a group of avid eaters, she hit some of the highlights along Argyle Street, beginning at the Thai Grocery, which houses dozens of prepared and imported goods.
"The tours are really a natural off-shoot of what I was doing in my private cooking classes. So I'd have someone who wanted to learn about Thai, and it's like well, 'where do I shop for these ingredients?' and 'how am I going to find everything in these recipes?'" said Wheeler.
That is why a visit to a market is so crucial. To actually see what lemongrass, sweet tamarind and galanga - or young ginger - looks like, is invaluable to an aspiring cook.
"With the sandwiches, you're going to see the French influence in just the sandwich concept on its own," said Wheeler.
Next door, at the Bale Bakery, it's time to see how they make their famous bahn mi, or Vietnamese sandwiches.
"It's crispy, crunchy, soft on the inside, all the good baguette qualities. The only thing to watch out for is jalapeno slices, if spicy is not your thing, you can actually open it up and pick it out," said Wheeler. "I really like introducing people to not just a grocery but a bakery, you know, if you're having a Thai dinner party and you wanna maybe create a theme, where can you go pick up a great dessert, where can you go pick up some little appetizers, and I think it's a lot of fun too to just show people like look, we have all these amazing gems, right in our city; it's right in your back yard, you don't even have to leave home to experience it."
The final stop is Sun Wah Bar-B-Q, for a little tasting of some roasted duck and pork. Tour members see first-hand how everything is made, chopped and served and, of course, there are plenty of samples, so pacing yourself is key.
One of the cool things about Wheeler's tours is they help you decipher the myriad options you've got in some of these ethnic grocery stores. Here at Thai Grocery for example, they've got a dozen different kinds of soy sauce and fish sauce alone.
Rebecca leads other kinds of tours -- some to Devon Avenue, others visiting several locations on the North Side.
The Thai Grocery is sadly closing its doors at the end of the month.
Cooking Instruction, Culinary Tours
5014 N. Broadway
5018 N. Broadway
Sun Wah BBQ
1132 W. Argyle