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Restaurant Sat Mar 24 2007

The second running of the Lincoln Square Thaiathlon

In the week before I moved out of my Lincoln Square apartment, in the summer of '04, I gathered a few friends and set out on a tour of the neighborhood's bevy of Thai restaurants. There were at least six within a half-mile radius of my place. We ended up hitting three of them over the course of a few hours. We called it the Thaiathlon.

One of the participants was my out-of-town friend Sarah, who was back in town this week, and who suggested we organize a reprise. While it would have been easy to find a new cluster of restaurants to try, the north Western Avenue Thai corridor was close, easy to get to, and still our favorite place to eat Thai, so we headed back to try it again. In order of consumption, here's what we found:

Most delightful surprises: Spoon Thai
4608 N. Western Ave [spoonthai.com]

Kuy chai, in halfWe started off at the cozy Spoon, home of the Secret Menu (That's Not So Secret Anymore). It used to be that you had to know to ask for the secret Thai menu -- and be able to read Thai -- to get the really special stuff. Then someone posted an English transation of the menu, so you just had to know how to read transliteration and/or point. Then Spoon decided to just translate it themselves, laminate it and hand out to all customers, putting your average customer on the same playing field as the hard-core Chowhound who took two years of Thai just to learn how to read the Spoon menu.

So if you know what to order, you'll get some pretty unique dishes. We made some lucky choices, and left very happy. Here's what we ordered, along with the average score it garnered from the participants (out of 6):

- Kuy chai (chive dumpling) - 4.7.
- Khanom buang (Thai omlette) - 4.2.
- Kai thwat (crispy chicken) - 2.8
- Mystery dish (marshmallowy, Cracker Jacky noodle confection) - 4.7.

Best place to go if Spoon and Opart have 30 minute waits: Thai Oscar
4638 N. Western [thaioscar.com]

Beef saladWith a location that seems to have been chosen on a dare, Thai Oscar sits halfway between Opart and Spoon, on the same side of Western Avenue, but without any of the popularity of either one. It's a decent enough establishment, with a comprehensive part-Thai, part-Japanese menu and a calming, cozy ambience. We stuck to the Thai part of the menu, and while none of our dishes were bad, they didn't stand out like the stuff at our other stops. The breakdown:

- Tom kha kai (mushroom and coconut soup) - 3.5
- Beef salad - 3.5
- Khao soy (red curry with egg noodles) - 3.2

Best overall experience: Opart Thai
4658 N. Western [opartthai.com]

Fried BananaOpart is the Grand Dame of Lincoln Square Thai. And its easy to see why. Their menu is a nice mix of traditional and new. The place gets crowded early and stays that way on weekend nights, but with their three rooms we didn't have to wait for a seat when we got there, at 8:45. Even their location on the north end of the block is beneficial; if you forget your beer (it's BYOB, just like the others), you can hop next door to Leland Liquors and pick up a six-pack. The rundown:

- Moo ping (grilled pork on a stick) - 4.5
- Tiger cry (sweet, tender beef) - 4.7
- Stir-fried sole - 3.7
- Fried banana - 5.7

The fact is, you can't go wrong at any place. If I had to pick one to go back to -- and I often do -- my first choice would be Spoon, but I can see circumstances dictating a visit to either other place. Meanwhile, hundreds of dishes remain untasted, to say nothing of the dozens of Thai restaurants that abound in this city. Time to start prepping for Thaiathlon III.

[More pictures of our night are collected in this flickr photoset.]

Meghan / March 26, 2007 8:02 AM

Great idea. One of my favorite things to do with family when they come visit is walk them by every single Thai restaurant within the square mile of Lincoln Square and watch their faces in disbelief. Then I ask them to choose one.

I do think you should have included Rosded. I think it might have been the first Thai restaurant to come to the Square.

Sandy / March 26, 2007 8:18 AM

Rosded is in fact our favorite Thai place to go in a pinch. We've also heard it's the most authentic. But picking the three restaurants on that one stretch of Western just felt like it made more logistical sense. Next time we'll try to include Rosded.

Scott Robbin / March 26, 2007 11:34 AM

Spoon used to be our go-to place, but Opart Thai is starting to win out. I go bonkers for their Curry Fried Rice.

And, an equally if not more delicious place is Yes Thai on Foster and Damen. Could be some of the best Thai food I've had in Chicago, but the wait can sometimes overshadow the tasty experience.

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