Jack Sanseeha has an ace in the pocket. Scanning the menu at his new Bodhi Thai Bistro, you won’t see much that’s different from dozens of Thai restaurants around Chicago—satay, dumplings, soups, curries, noodles, rice dishes. But pay careful attention and you’ll see the following tucked away under the “No MSG” claim: “Our dishes are prepared using traditional Thai freestyle cooking.” When I followed up with Sanseeha to find out just what that means (I envisioned a cook spitting out stream-of-consciousness raps while throwing ingredients into a pan), he put it simply: “If you want a specific dish, we’ll make it. Maybe it’s something you had in Thailand or you’ve heard about. We can make it because we freestyle. No recipes, just put things together.”
Easy for him to say. He’s hiding a secret weapon in the kitchen—his stepmother, Vilairat Junthong, a pillar in the local Thai community who has cooked or consulted for more than a half-dozen of the best Thai spots in town, including Sticky Rice, Thai Spoon and Amarit. So while you could be content with the menu, you’re better off pointing to the dry-erase board and requesting one of everything. Combined with a few verbal specials the server will cough up if prompted and the “we can make anything” attitude of the kitchen, the board is part of a not-so-secret secret menu of the less-familiar, more-delicious specialties of northeastern Thailand.
That region’s hallmark pork and rice sausage is present in two forms: the distinctively sour sai krok Isaan, brimming with a garlicky aroma, and sai oua (pictured), its spicier cousin, thanks to the red curry paste that’s massaged into the meat before the links are formed and grilled until nearly bursting. Kai thawt, crispy chicken hawked by street vendors throughout the upper half of Thailand, gets marinated in garlicky black pepper paste and can be fried or grilled; both are delicious and arrive with their sister snacks of sticky rice and crunchy green papaya salad.
Another “have-it-your-way” dish, the nam tok (“waterfall” salad) can be made with either beef or pork. I’m partial to the beef, which at Bodhi is tender and lean, soaked through with a dressing of palm-sugar-sweetened lime juice, mint, scallions, red onion, cilantro and, the key ingredient, toasted rice powder. Ask for it “Thai style” and a splash of fish sauce is added to the mix.
A recent inquiry of “what else ya got?” yielded two fantastic dishes: kana moo krob, hunks of crispy pork belly and Chinese broccoli in a clingy paste of red chiles, garlic and oyster sauce, and plaa koong, plump shrimp, split open and flash-grilled then tossed in lime juice with sliced apples and lemongrass slivers, served with green leaf lettuce for making delicious little wraps.
While cleaning our plates that night, we overheard a Thai speaker fire off an order; she was soon rewarded with an unidentifiable plate carrying fragrant, familiar scents. I asked the server what we were missing out on, and she replied “Oh, that’s tap wan, sweet liver. They knew we will make it on request.” At Bodhi, ask and ye shall receive.