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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Thursday, May 23

Gapers Block

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It is a strange world indeed when consumers order Burger King's Sante Fe grilled chicken baguette (Please Note: this is not a low-sodium food) instead of a Whopper and consider themselves healthy. Perhaps even more alarming: KFC is advertising its chicken (?) as a low-carb, high protein food.

But ridiculous marketing gimmicks aside, more and more people are starting to realize that eating healthy isn't so much about what you don't eat as what you do. At least that's what Surintorn Suanthont, owner of Dharma Garden in Albany Park, is hoping.

The newish Thai restaurant on the 3000 block of Irving Park Road serves up vegetarian and vegan dishes using mostly organic ingredients and healthful cooking processes.

Before you roll your eyes at the mention of yet another Thai eatery and back click to the main page, let me assure you that Dharma Garden's offerings transcend the usual MSG-laden noodle and veggie mixtures doused in a salty sauce. Dishes here are prepared using fresh herbs, natural foods, and heaping portions of fruits and vegetables you might not even have know existed (or at least would be surprised to come across in your Pad Thai). The best part: No fish sauce, refined sugars, or chemical products (MSG) are used in preparation. You not only know you're eating healthy, you feel like you're eating healthy.

That's not to insinuate that the food is devoid of taste. You may recognize the usual Thai classics listed on the menu, but you'll find that Dharma Garden's versions are unlike anything your tastebuds have experienced before.

The signature Dharma Garden Spring Rolls are standard rice paper-wrapped Thai rolls (found on any Thai menu) filled with rice noodles, cucumber, carrots, bean sprouts, scallions, and tofu. But the basil and mint leaves give this starter an overpowering freshness few establishments are able to mimic. Likewise, the cucumber salad -- an innocuous side at most places -- proves to be a fierce contender for the appetizer position with its hefty jalapeno kick mellowed by a honeyed sweet and sour sauce.

The pages and pages of Dharma Garden's menu seem never-ending and more than a little intimidating; not only do the number of entrees take up plenty of space, but the list of ingredients in each dish goes on and on as well.

Basil fried rice (Kow Pad Krapoa) is an absolute mountain of basil-and-garlic-fried rice made with tofu, broccoli, collard greens, carrots, baby corn, green beans, bamboo shoots, tomatoes, scallions, onions, jalapeno, and hot peppers -- attempts to finish it were ultimately thwarted despite its extreme deliciousness.

The green curry (Kang Keaw Wan) is a fragrant soup of coconut milk mixed with green curry paste containing tofu and many of the same veggies as the basil rice along with eggplant, bamboo shoots, and, oh yes, pumpkin. The spicy asparagus plate is another winning veggie medley, this time featuring asparagus and vegetables in a garlic sauce. In spite of having a high tolerance for spiciness, we had to allow ourselves frequent breaks from the raging curry soup and asparagus plate (we had ordered both dishes "medium" hot) lest our tongues go numb. These breaks were spent devouring the aptly named "Heaven Jasmine Rice" -- brown rice with taro and sweet potato. A mild pumpkin custard was the ultimate sweet salve for our weary tongues as well as a perfect ending to the savory meal.

I should mention here, for fear that I may disappoint or offend any herbivores, that although Dharma Garden touts itself as offering vegetarian and vegan options, seafood is also available either as an entree or as an addition to several dishes -- shrimp, in most cases. But for those who prefer to avoid meat at all costs, tofu is plentiful as well as imitation meat.

It should be fairly obvious to anyone who has read any of the previous pieces in this spot that I am neither vegetarian nor a picky eater (although I refuse to touch BK's baguette concoctions and I have never eaten at KFC). I visited Dharma Garden that first time not because I was overly concerned about checking out nutritious options in the city, but because my more health-conscious friends wanted to go. Being a frequent Thai consumer, I was expecting the usual routine, but was instead astounded by Dharma's Garden's variety, innovation, and care for the health of its customers. But more than that, I was astounded that I didn't have that sickening full feeling that usually accompanies the end of the meal. Instead, I felt simply satiated and content -- the result of eating natural food prepared using healthful cooking processes. I wondered why I would eat anything else.

Dharma Garden is located at 3109 W. Irving Park Road. Be sure to stop by the Thai gift shop next door.

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Naz / November 2, 2003 11:34 PM

Damn. I just went there for the first time this past Monday. As a (mostly-)vegetarian I was amazed and excited. Great stuff. It's been a good week for veggie places. Mark's Chop Suey house has not incorporated the old Vegetarian Garden from Chinatown.

pad kapau chmiel / November 12, 2003 5:59 PM

I've only eaten here once, but after being sorely disappointed with Chicago Thai food in general (which is almost unbelievable, given the ridiculous quantity of restaurants), this place is my new favorite. Cute interior, friendly hosts, much better than the typical mediocre offerings, and definitely worth the trip,


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