Until 2004, the only Thai chef in town known by name within the culinary cognoscenti was Arun Sampanthavivat, the Thai Charlie Trotter. But after a prolific poster on LTH Forum translated the Thai-language menu at TAC Quick Thai Kitchen to English, a new name entered the lexicon: Andy.
His last name (Aroonrasameruang, for the record) didn’t matter. To the customers addicted to his sweet beef jerky and beefy boat noodles, he was simply “Andy of TAC.” Together with his business partner, Aroonrasameruang grew TAC from a small BYOB with six tables to an airy restaurant filling two storefronts and a sidewalk patio.
But as with many partnerships, theirs didn’t last—these days, Aroonrasameruang won’t even speak his former partner’s name. So a couple of months ago, Andy began searching for a kitchen of his own. “I wanted to do this for a few years now,” he says. “But I didn’t think I had enough of a following before. Now I know it is time.”
As celebrated as TAC has become as the polestar for authentic Thai food in Chicago (notable diners have included the team from Next, researching its “Tour of Thailand” menu), Andy has remained humble and reserved. Of his storied “secret menu” (the English translation of the Thai-language menu), he says he “never thought Americans would eat real Thai food. I had worked at places where they just didn’t [Banana Leaf, Ping Pong, etc.]. Now they eat spicier food than we do. They eat shrimp paste, fish sauce, all of it.”
They didn’t always. In 1995, when Andy moved to Chicago from Chachoengsao, a town in central Thailand near Bangkok, the only place he could find the sour soups and oily curries he grew up on was in his sister’s home. In his mid-twenties then, Andy attended Dominican University in River Forest for his M.B.A., working nights as a delivery driver, gas-station attendant and, eventually, a cook. “I’ve cooked since I can remember,” he says. “I helped cook every meal with my mother, and when she wasn’t there, I was the one who cooked.” After landing at TAC in 2002, he assumed the role of head chef and partner, giving business a bump with his loyal friends in the Thai LGBT community, pumping house music from the speakers and creating a demand for laborious dishes hardly available anywhere else.
That following and those dishes have a new home in ATK (Andy’s Thai Kitchen). Housed in the former sushi and noodles joint Fresh (whose owner is now partnering with Andy), ATK offers Andy’s signatures plus a handful of new dishes, including steamed catfish with crunchy garlic and zesty lime dipping sauce; a green papaya salad amended with earthy mudfish curd; and intensely sour blue crabs that have been cured overnight in fish sauce and lime juice, tossed into a salad of long beans and cilantro. These challenging full-frontal flavors are no longer relegated to a specials board or a stealthy second menu. “It’s all one menu now, with both Thai and English languages,” Andy says. “This is Andy. No more secrets.”
946 W Wellington Ave (773-549-7821). Lunch, dinner. Average main course: $8. BYOB.