After spending too much time on the road, mostly in Dallas, I've had some time to catch up with an old favorite or two and a few newcomers.
First, Arun's. You have probably read before that this is a beautiful, serene place, with gracious service, but that the expensive Thai food is perhaps not cost-justified when one considers it against the fantastic, dirt-cheap Thai places around town. Yes. That's about right. It is a lovely spot, and a recent face-lift has made the outside as pretty as the inside. The service was sincere and warm, as maybe only Thai service can be. The wine list is inspired, what, with all the Germans and Alsatians, white Burgundies and Rhones that go great with the food. We had a nice white Chateneuf du Pape that worked wonders with the legitimately "Thai hot," in the server's words, plates.
I give Arun the utmost credit for actually making the dishes among the hottest I've been served anywhere, let alone at a $300 prix fixe dinner. But what were these hot dishes? Nothing too daring, even by Chicago Thai standards: tom yum, shui mai, beef massaman curry, chicken ka prao, et al. No fusion, not that I wanted any, so no foie gras or truffles to explain the prices -- only a smallish, and to be honest, overcooked split lobster tail and modest amounts of sea bass, shrimp and pike to fill out the $85 pp. menu. The menu, by the way, consisted of 6 small plates of appetizers, followed by four "family style" main dishes with rice, then a couple of small desserts. For a Chicago tasting menu, this was quite a light meal, but certainly enough food.
Don't blame me for the safe choices, as the one and only menu is set at the beginning of the night. No substitutions except for those made to accommodate dietary restrictions. So, no wild boar, venison, blood soup or ant eggs here.
In the end, I was impressed by Arun's in many ways, but kept wondering what the guys at Spoon would come up with given a couple hundred dollars and some lead time. I choose to see the experience as proof that Chicago has a very high standard for mom-and-pop Thai restaurants; that is, if Arun's really is among the best, often cited as *the* best, Thais in the US, then we should really appreciate the Spoons and Oparts, Rosed's and others, because the cooking is right up there.
A few lighter notes:
Brisku's: Before heading into Arun's, I walked into Brisku's Bistro a few corners south on Kedzie near Irving for some beers. A bright friendly place that follows the same odd form of the Chicago Slavic/Polish/Balkan pub: well-appointed room, vivacious servers, decent beer list and an extensive menu that covers chicken wings, chili, burgers and a scattering of plates from the old country. The notable things about Brisku's are the beer: I had a Fin Du Monde, great as always, and the one beer on tap: a cask conditioned, hand-pulled, "real ale" from Two Brothers; and the Albanian food, which I have not yet tried. The food descriptions were interesting, bridging the gap between typical "Yugoslavian" dishes and Greek. I don't believe that Brisku's has been mentioned here before, except in passing by RST who called it "yuppie-Serbian" (only RST could do that). Believe me, it is Albanian; I incorrectly had guessed Serbian to the bartender who didn't give me much credit for being geographically close, for obvious political/cultural reasons.
Hamburger King: The King, a 1940's Japanese-American diner is near and dear to the hearts of many a Chowhound, and it is still going strong. A few notes to follow up on prior postings about the Hamburger King. The burger itself was excellent, excellent in the same 1930's burger way as the burger at the Diner Grill and that other great 1940's Chicago Asian burger joint, Pepper's. I also recognized immediately that special Asian-American hybrid diner fare, heretofore spotted (by me) only in the 50th State and on the LA table of my Hilo-born, Lakeview raised, grandfather-in-law, the loco-moco. At least two patrons were digging into huge plates of hamburgers or steaks with fried eggs and a heap of white rice, all covered in brown gravy. Yum. A previous post noted, some confusion surrounds the question whether the King is Japanese or Korean. At this point, I'd have to say both. I had a decent tasting massive portion of chap chae, and mandu are on the menu as well. Good coffee and a good lunch crowd of regulars, including a few guys loading up on no more than a huge plate of rice and gravy with some smokes for desert. The interior, while previously described as "renovated" here, looks like it has changed nil since 1945, save a neon teriyaki sign and some already-dated, but new-er formica on the ancient counter.
Finally, Palmar is an easy-going new Mexican seafood specialist on Western a few blocks north of Irving. I just stopped in for a big bowl of pozole, which is served all week, and a huge octopus tostada. Both were quite good and the people couldn't have been friendlier. FWIW, the place is spotless, a plus when you are dealing in cheap seafood. For reference, the good-size veulve a la vida with shrimp, octopus and raw oysters (here called something different within the Lazarus theme) is around $12. Maybe not Islas Marias, but a much, much better option than Garcia's up the street.