If I handed you a strawberry and you had never seen it before, let alone tasted it, the experience of trying it for the first time would rock your world. In 1985, Arun Sampanthavivat handed Chicago the equivalent, its first real taste of Thai food. At the time, the local Thai community was minuscule, with only a couple of takeout joints testing the waters with spring rolls and basil chicken. Ambria, Gordon and Spiaggia were the big dogs in town, with Carlos’ and Le Francais in the ’burbs. Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless had yet to hit the scene, making for a French-rooted fine-dining landscape that would prevail throughout the ’80s.
Sampanthavivat was oblivious to that world, and he was not a chef. He was a 38-year-old student pursuing a doctorate in Asian affairs at University of Chicago. He believed that those takeout joints were tarnishing Thai food’s reputation, and at the urging of friends, a small restaurant took shape in Irving Park. It was not the serene setting he would eventually build in Albany Park, the dining room rimmed in ornate murals hand-painted by his brother Anawat that we know today. Rather, it was simple and mostly unadorned. But within two months the Chicago Tribune awarded it three stars. The Sun-Times followed with three-and-a-half. Everyone was unanimously smitten with the food—shrimp dumplings in delicate tapioca wrappers, hot and sour soup, stuffed chicken wings—but the thing is, this was not “haute,” “progressive” or “elevated” Thai food, as the media and the public insisted. This was classic Thai cooking, done well and with finesse, presented beautifully in polished surroundings that could put well-heeled diners at ease.
That was then. Today, the dining landscape insists that we hold Arun’s to one of two standards: stacking its $85 prix fixe up against other upscale experiences or comparing the parade of Thai standards to those found at the brigade of solid storefronts throughout Chicago. In both cases, Arun’s, unfortunately, does not emerge the victor.
This is not to say that Arun’s is irrelevant because we now have cheap, delicious Thai in abundance. Certainly there is room for multiple levels of refinement and creativity within a genre—Spiaggia for a splurge, Spacca Napoli for a Tuesday. But every dish currently coming out of Arun’s kitchen is not only straightforward Thai-in-America greatest hits (green curry beef, crêpe-like spring rolls, tofu in panang curry), but they are poorly executed at that—the flavors flat, the proteins overcooked, the food obscured by dated attempts to mask it all with random piles of julienned bell peppers, tomatoes shaped into roses and carrots carved into goldfish (which the staff have now cringingly named “Nemo”). There is no presentation of a menu before or after a meal—your only choices are whether you want meat in your meal, and how spicy you want it—and d d d seemingly little thought for the progression or range of dishes. The same limp crabmeat that garnishes two bites of spring roll is next formed into cakes, sloppily seared and crowned with a crispy wonton filled with pasty pureed squash. A duo of rubbery scallops, so browned they seem to have been dropped in a deep fryer, sit in a pool of standard sweet and sour sauce, adorned with unseasoned (and out-of-season) asparagus spears. Resting between a split bell pepper and a ribbon of cucumber is a pile of dry, hacked-up pork tossed with red chile flakes and a few cilantro leaves, a crime against what nam sod can really be—pork fat and lime and chile heat at its best. The sole exception to the uninspired litany is also the least Thai, a deeply porky broth, almost Japanese in the shiro vein, studded with ramenesque elements of soy-soaked egg, tender pig belly and toothsome mushrooms.
Disappointment continues into the second half of the degustation (especially for vegetarians, who will find themselves with their umpteenth helping of tofu), a simultaneous onslaught of four entrées, including tough beef in thin, flat green curry and fried snapper fillets whose crispness is robbed by more of that generic sweet and sour sauce (this one dubbed “three-flavor” because of the addition of a little chile paste). The once-famed “golden baskets” of crispy pastry filled with tender prawns and shiitake are nowhere in sight. The raved-about lobster medallions and veal in ginger-lemongrass sauce do not make an appearance. Neither does Sampanthavivat himself, or for that matter any of that magic that has put food media on autopilot to nominate him for a James Beard award just about every year since they began in 1990. I have no doubt that at one time Arun’s was deserving of the honor, but each night that its kitchen continues on autopilot will further dismantle that reputation, eventually into obscurity.