Spoon Thai If you stick to the menu basics served in this simple but pleasant dining room, you’ll miss out on the best stuff. Get adventurous with kung chae naam plaa, raw shrimp marinated with lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chile—a searing Thai take on ceviche. The Isaan-style pork-and-rice sausage is almost as addictive as the naem khao thawt, a crunchy, salty, tangy salad of fried rice, tiny ham bits and flecks of cilantro. Curry fans should try the kaeng som kung sot, a thin, slightly sour, shrimp-dotted tamarind curry, or call a day ahead to request special housemade fish balls doused with amazingly good green curry. 4608 N Western Ave (773-769-1173). El: Brown to Western. Bus: 11, 49, 49B, 81. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $7.
Sticky Rice What we love about this unassuming storefront is that chef-owner Kritsana Moungkeow keeps our interest with new, spicy, tangy, slurpable concoctions every couple of weeks. Tried-and-true favorites include housemade spicy fermented pork sausage, probably the best gang hung lay (pork in sweet, garlicky, ginger-laden curry) in town, and khua kae, a stir-fry of chicken, baby corn, eggplant, shredded lime leaves and roasted rice powder that has a hint of gingery citrus tang. Get sticky rice to accompany it. Translations of the Thai-language menu courtesy of “Erik M” are available for adventurous eaters, as well as a vegetarian menu for leaf-eaters. 4018 N Western Ave (773-588-0133). Bus: 49, 80. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $7.
TAC Quick Thai The basic menu appeases the masses who flood the simple, minimalist room of this top-notch Thai joint. But the true standouts can be found on the translated Thai-language menu, with never-fail flavor explosions such as tart and smoky pork-and-rice sausage; ground chicken with crispy basil and preserved eggs; and the earthiest beef noodle dish in town—the brisket-packed “boat noodles.” But don’t disregard the specials board: Promising rotations have included basil duck stir-fried with garlic and mushrooms, and lettuce wrap–ready deep-fried mackerel with apples, cucumbers, fish sauce and chiles. 3930 N Sheridan Rd (773-327-5253). El: Red to Sheridan. Bus: 36, 80, 145, 151. Lunch, dinner (closed Tue). Average main course: $9.
Thai Avenue Located on a strip of Broadway known for its Vietnamese spots, the cuisine shifts to Thai at this simple, bright storefront. Anglo favorites abound, but the gems of the menu are the authentic eats. Start with yum woonsen, a spicy glass-noodle salad with tiny bites of fresh shrimp and ground chicken, and namtok, a pork salad with bright flavors of cilantro, red onion, peanuts and roasted rice powder. For more tangy-spicy-salty, go for the name klug, deep-fried rice with bits of ham, pork fat, peanuts, chiles and plenty of lime. Sweet sticky rice with mango or chilled lychee are perfect simple endings. 4949 N Broadway (773-878-2222). El: Red to Argyle. Bus: 36, 81, 92, 147, 151. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $6.
Thai Pastry As the name suggests, dessert is not to be missed at this bright café: Moist miniature chocolate cakes and swan-shaped cream puffs end the meal on a perfectly sweet note. But don’t discount the savory options. Spring rolls wrapped in thin pastry (as opposed to rice paper) are superfresh; roasted duck salad is a heavenly combination of rich duck, cool cilantro, sharp green onion and a hint of chile pepper; and panang curry is sweet and slurpable. Ignore the mussels, though—with a huge pastry case to choose from for dessert, they’re just not worth the stomach space. 4925 N Broadway (773-784-5399). El: Red to Argyle. Bus: 36, 92, 147, 151. Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $10.