They're usually discovered on secret, "Thai-only" menus. For the adventurous eater, that means a trip to Lincoln Square.
That's where you'll find Sticky Rice, Spoon, Aroy and now Rainbow Cuisine, which is owned by the former head cook at Spoon. She offers safe, predictable dishes that appeal to satay skewer and Pad Thai-loving beginners..
But there are also a dozen or so hardcore options providing the hallmarks of great Thai food: something sweet, salty, sour, spicy and crunchy, all in one bite.
Blink and you'll miss it. The outside of Rainbow Cuisine still lacks a sign, so you've got to pay attention to the address. But inside, the former cook from Spoon Thai and her husband are running parallel restaurants, which means they have two menus.
"The taste is very strong, so that's why we have to put the Thai menu separately from the regular menu, because I think American people cannot eat it," said owner Pramote Rukprueksachart.
But they may have underestimated their audience, because people are already lining up for the sai krog Isaan- assertive, fermented sausage-and-rice balls that hail from Isaan, in Northeastern Thailand. One of their other special dishes worth trying: naem khao tod.
"Naem khao tod. Naem is a preserved pork," he said.
But the fermented pork is only part of the attraction. First, red curry paste is combined with all-purpose flour and mixed by hand into some cooked white rice. Then large, flat patties are formed, looking like chubby frisbees. They're deep-fried, just until the outside is golden brown. Then they're removed from the oil, cut in half, and the insides are scooped out, leaving a hollow shell that is broken up into bite-sized pieces. Combined with the trinity of lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, plus peanuts, cilantro and fresh ginger, this salad has it all: sweet, salty, sour, spicy and crunch. The ultimate expression of Thai cuisine.
Another spicy salad, the chicken laab, features ground chilies with those peanuts, lime juice and fish sauce; plus the addition of toasted rice powder, which lends some haunting depth. The couple is still perplexed by the number of non-Thais coming in, asking for these authentic dishes.
"We know Thai people that eat the spicy food. . . All you guys that come to order the food from us, I can't believe it, they can eat it, but some Thai people cannot. That's very, very, make me surprised. Very surprised," he said.
4825 N. Western Ave.
Thai Food Festival
June 19 - 21
Federal Plaza (Adams & Dearborn)
11 am - 6 pm