Last Saturday, as the Wife and I made our way to Thai Grocery, I spotted Thai Super Chef, a small Thai diner that I had never visited before
so we stopped.
Readers of the Chicago board know that some Thai menu selections that have become, for better or worse, benchmarks for Chicago Thai. Papaya salad, fried chicken, and larp are three of these emerging benchmarks. At Thai Super Chef, we ordered one of each.
The papaya salad was edible, but seemed to have been sitting around for quite some time. The threads of green papaya were translucent, suggesting long-term residence in a marinade, and the strips were uniformly machined, rather than the irregular hand-cut papaya strands that you find at, for instance, Spoon (and, yes, I do find that irregular cuts are more interesting and actually taste better). The salad dressing seemed to lack garlic and tamarind. Thai vegetable salads should be alive with crisp, fresh, explosive flavors; this salad was a wet mop.
The fried chicken did not have bad flavor, but it was toothsome-to-the-point-of-tough and seemed to be largely skin and fat. Thai fried chicken, of course, has fewer big hunks o meat than fried chicken a la American, but these gnarled rags of hard tissue, though edible, lacked substance. The dipping sauce was a gloppy Chinese sweet and sour, and could have been from a bottle. Again, not horrid, just mediocre, and not up to the delicately textured fried chicken offering at, say, TAC.
The larp had decent flavor, but the meat was ground, rather than minced (my preference, and, I believe, the traditional way of preparing this dish). I detected no roasted rice (a binder that adds a little texture and flavor), and the semi-circular slices of Bermuda onion were rather larger than I prefer. Detestable? No, but not like the fine fire and delicious dimensions of Thai Avenues similar offerings.
I should add that all these Thai Super Chef dishes were relatively inexpensive, and none of them was bad; they were, as mentioned, simply mediocre, though worth eating, which brings me to the real subject of this post.
My current tea guru, Bill Todd of Todd & Holland, suggests that one should drink Lipton (or some other low grade tea) at least now and again to set the palate. That is, if you want to enjoy (and even recognize!) the best, you need to establish, for yourself, the range of tastes appropriate to the item. So, if you want to fully appreciate the subtlety of a Gilapukri Estate Special Silver Tips STGFOP, it might be good to contrast it, now and again, with something less fine.
To use a cinematic analogy, seeing a poorly made movie provides you with a better understanding of what it takes to make a good movie, one with characterization, plot, capable camera work things you come to expect but which take some skill to bring off.
Now, Im not sure how far you want to take this approach, and I doubt, for instance, that Robert Parker, to keep his sensibilities straight, slugs back Mad Dog 20/20. But I do know this: I have a better appreciation for some of the standard Thai dishes and, indeed, I have a better sense of the standard itself having tried what I feel to be the substandard offerings at Thai Super Chef.
Experiencing the bad gives one a sharper sense of the good.
(Note: this was a spontaneous visit, and if I had planned a visit, I would have read and followed Ponzus advice concerning the duck noodle soup).
On a side note, Im learning a few Thai expressions so that I can express simple sentiments (Please, Thank you, Excuse me, Delicious) to Thai restaurateurs. I am approaching this honorable language with my usual dilettantish superficiality, but if anyone shares my belief that knowing a little language helps respectfully connect with (and send the right chow code to) native speakers, check out the link below. This link contains some audio clips, which can be played repeatedly to accustom American ears to the subtle tones of this refined and mellifluous language.
Thai Super Chef
1025 W. Lawrence , Chicago
Tel: (773) 784-6169