Dharma Garden Thai
3109 W. Irving Park Rd.
(just east of Kedzie, 6 bl. from Brown Line. Easy street parking!)
This city bristles with Thai noodle shops - I think there are two dozen in my neighborhood alone - but Dharma Garden is very different and truly special. It's also a little out of the way and doesn't get the attention it deserves.
The cuisine is much more authentic and imaginative than most Thai joints in town. With her eye for fresh, seasonal produce, the chefs use such unexpected items as pumpkin and serves her curries in a coconut (which is part of the dish.)
No meat is served, only seafood, and the owner, Surintorn Suanthont, has a philosophy behind the dietary choices, including all manner of fruit juices and teas. An herbalist and nutritionalist, she'll brew up a tonic for what ails you (and if that doesn't work, the joint is BYOB with no corkage fee.)
The restaurant itself is convivial and festive, with tropical decorations and an adjacent gift shop for that missing item for your shrine. Sometimes the owners bring in Thai cultural performances on special occasions, like their recent one-year anniversary.
But mostly, the food is great, plentiful and cheap, dished up with great friendliness and panache. Usually the owner will throw in something extra that "you must try." Every time I eat there, I learn something new. One word of caution: when the menu classifies a dish as "spicy," she really means it.