CHICAGO (WLS) --The Thai New Year of Songkran is coming up next week and if you haven't had Thai food in the city recently, there are several places cooking home-style food.
Home-style means bolder flavors and not just the usual pad thai noodles.
ABC 7's Hungry Hound found one spot in Lincoln Park, near DePaul's campus, if you're in the mood for the real deal, go where the Thais eat.
Deciphering the menu at the cozy and quaint Paula's Thai Kitchen in Lincoln Park isn't too difficult. It's all delicious, and this time of year, the owner's regular customers tend to lean toward a trio of dishes.
"On New Year every year, on Songkran, we do papaya salad and grilled pork shoulder and sai krog Isaan," Duanta Reyes, Paula's Thai Kitchen, said.
Sai krog is a fermented sausage, made in-house and briefly deep-fried. Its origin is the city of Isaan, in Northeast Thailand, where Reyes is from. They're served with fresh ginger, onions and peanuts for extra crunch.
She also makes an excellent Tiger Cry beef salad, marinated and grilled, then sliced on an angle and served with the outstanding salty-spicy-sweet sauce for dipping. Pork shoulder is also marinated, cooked on the grill, then sliced, but then she adds some toasted rice powder and ground Thai chilies for heat, plus fish sauce and lime juice for a salty-sour punch, and fresh cilantro, mint and red onions to add freshness.
But it's her papaya salad, the star of Isaan's food culture that gets the most attention.
"I use fish sauce and Thai chili, garlic, fresh garlic and tamarind sauce, sugar, sometime I use salty crab," Reyes said.
It's a complex salad, with no less than a dozen ingredients, including chilies, garlic and sugar, plus long beans, Thai eggplants and cherry tomatoes, then a handful of shredded green papaya, that gets pounded and seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice and tamarind.
Served with some warm sticky rice you tear off yourself, it's a taste of Thailand that's still rare here, but becoming more prevalent. At the very least, you'll discover the differences between Bangkok and Isaan.
"In Bangkok they're sweet more than Isaan food. Sweet and sour. But Isaan is spicy," she said.
Chicago has dozens of Thai restaurants, but only a handful that go to the lengths that places like Paula's does, which is make everything from scratch, and not necessarily tone it down for the uninitiated.
In this week's Extra Course, ABC 7's Steve Dolinksy talks about one of the unique Thai desserts on the menu there, which also happens to be one of his all-time favorites: mango and sticky rice.
Paula's Thai Kitchen
2441 N. Halsted Street
Chicago, Ill. 60614