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Sunday, September 22

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A former Chicago resident, I've returned to the City after an almost three year stint in places non-Chicago. Upon my return, my search for housing led me to the vicinity of Sheridan and Irving — a nice little hub with lots of draws for me (Red line, the Irving Bus, and Lincoln Park, Wrigley Field, and Boystown are within walking distance). But there appeared — at first blush — to be uncertain dining options. A liquor store, a little grocery store, the Tropicana and Byron's hot dog stand... Well, each had/has its uses (now Byron's is a topic for another review entirely... delicious food that will coat your arteries in a sticky cholesterol goo), but I wasn't really thrilled with my local dining options as they immediately appeared. Especially this odd little Thai place with clean-lined minimalist urban decor and the name "TAC Quick." The name implied something akin to the McDonalds or Panda Express of Thai cuisine to me, and I wasn't really certain what that meant about the quality of the fare. I browsed the menu — the prices averaged $7 an entrée and the entrée listing looked fairly ordinary for a local Thai place-and it didn't look special, so I brushed it off the for most of April.

Shortly after my return, a friend insisted that we meet at Cozy Noodles and Rice (3456 N. Sheffield Ave., one block north of Clark on Sheffield, 773/327-0100) for lunch. As I approached the restaurant, I realized that something kitschy was afoot when I was greeted by a life-sized plastic Elvis resplendent in his '70s era white jump suit (I don't recall the bling count around his neck, though I think it was modest) motioning guests inward.

If a centennial toybox were opened and all of the fun from the 20th Century — action figures, tin toys, dolls, and more — were poured out, I think a lot of it may've landed in Cozy. Retro trains, planes and automobiles line the tiered yellow walls of the Cozy interior. Combine that with the nature of the tables themselves — old Singer sewing machine legs mounted to mosaic slab table tops — a fountain burbling gently in the background, and the smells of aromatic basil and chili peppers wafting in from the kitchen, and what you have is a unique, comfortable dining experience in a witty, charming environment.

Cozy offers, for the most part, standard Thai fare at very reasonable prices (averaging about $7 an entrée) in a modestly sized seating environment. The portions are very generous and in some cases the food can be quite good; in others, it falls a little short of the mark. The spring rolls, for example, are a little limp and uninspired and seemed a little too dry on the palette to me. My guest enjoyed his Crab Rangoon (it's hard to go wrong with cream cheese and krab, though) but found his helping of Pad See Ewe to be below the mark — he ended up adding more soy to his noodles to balance out the flavor. I, on the otherhand, was delighted by my light and delicious plate of Pad Khee Mao. Cozy's version of the dish offers snap-fresh carrots, green beans, tomatoes and more tossed with chicken and shrimp in a light and spicy sauce and is served over crispy noodles — in my opinion, not to be missed.

At the beginning of May, while working from home, I was struck by a hankering for Pad Khee Mao. Spoiled by favorable fare at Cozy, but growing increasingly lazy and less inclined to make the trek from Irving down to Clark (I know, I know — thank you for your sympathy), I decided to give TAC Quick (3930 N. Sheridan, just a few doors south of the Sheridan Red Line stop, 773/327-5253) a try.

Frankly, it's a little easy to miss TAC Quick if you're walking along Sheridan from the El. Its narrow storefront is packed in between a dry cleaner and a coffee shop, and its exterior and interior are both are pleasantly understated. Should you chance to look inside while passing by, you'll see a very modern little restaurant — clean lines, black table tops and artwork against flat white walls — and find yourself wondering what cuisine is offered inside.

It's even a little more confusing once you get inside: jaunty techno thumps from the restaurant's music system and one doesn't readily associate Underworld with Thai cuisine (or at least I don't).

Regardless, the smartly dressed wait staff greet you immediately and guide you to one of the few tables in this tiny restaurant. Again, the offerings on the written menu are basic Thai — noodles, curries, et al — but TAC Quick also lists its daily specials on a blackboard against the wall.

Like Cozy, TAC Quick offers healthy portions of noodle dishes at very reasonable prices (again averaging $7 a dish). Unlike Cozy, my dining experiences with TAC Quick have been more consistent. While their Pad Khee Mao is just a tad under the Cozy contemporary, TAC Quick's other noodle dishes are more than up to par. I dined with the same guest again earlier last week and he was very satisfied with his Pad See Ewe. The Pad Thai, while nothing extraordinary, is quite well balanced and saucy. (I've been more of a traditional noodle consumer at TAC — but then, it's only been a few visits in the past few weeks — though I have been assured that the other dishes are quite tasty as well.) The kitchen will also substitute crispy noodles for any of the wide noodle dishes, which should appeal to diners who typically shy away from floppy noodles. And where the portions are just as generous as Cozy, I think that TAC steps it up a notch by offering artful plating for most of their dishes. (For a very nice plating, try one of the curries. I recommend their Panang, which is light and silky — unlike the thick and pasty Panangs found in other Thai venues — yet retains the characteristic sweetness and spice of the dish.)

Were I to chose between the two, I'd go with TAC Quick. The food is consistent, the prices are quite reasonable — although it does lack the playful atmostphere of its neighbor to the South.

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About the Author(s)

Fork It Over is the result of weekly dinners with members of the Gapers Block staff. This week's review was written by Brandon Heckman.

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