Restaurant review: Bangkok Restaurant
In mid-November, Bangkok Restaurant — a venerated East Side Thai eatery — closed for two-and-a-half months to give its small, hard-working crew some time off. Bangkok had been on hiatus before, but this protracted span of inaction provoked hardcore fans to clamor for its return (on Facebook and in real life).
When the beloved mom-and-pop shop re-opened with a refreshed staff, I sensed an opportune occasion to reassess a restaurant I'd long been fond of but hadn't visited in many months. Spoiler alert: I won't be waiting many months until my next visit again.
That's not because Bangkok is born anew — it's not a place that embraces change. By continuing down the well-worn path it started traveling back in 1984, this humble, relatively inexpensive eatery leads its customers to classic Thai food that's as good, and often better, than any in the city.
Bangkok's expansive menu has remained largely static through the years, but the experienced chefs are executing its spicy, fragrant, delicious and uncommonly balanced dishes better than ever. And Bangkok's friendly, efficient and helpful veteran servers are on top of their game now, as well.
One thing hasn't improved with age: Bangkok's dining room. It's the same old brightly lit space with fake bricks, industrial carpet, faded photographs of Thai royalty, a few culturally appropriate knick-knacks and adornments, plus a TV playing Thai pop-music videos. Because the food is so good, the place is usually bustling, and this translates into an upbeat mood.
I love bold and refreshing Thai salads. But balancing their diverse components — acidic fresh lime juice, funky fish sauce, spicy chilies, sweet palm sugar, aromatic cilantro and scallion — can seem as tricky as juggling a bowling ball, a grape and an agitated raccoon. Bangkok impressively manages the task with its big and wonderful Larb Gai ($12.95), starring warm ground chicken given crunch from toasted ground rice, and the modest-sized Som Tam ($5.95), assembled with shredded unripe papaya, carrot threads, crushed peanuts and tomatoes. Sharing these salads with an order of sticky rice ($2) will boost any group outing here.
So will a bowl of Tom Ka soup ($10), which serves three or four as an appetizer. Integrating many of those salad flavors with coconut milk, galangal and lemongrass, its soothing-yet-piquant broth tastes great packed with vegetables or sliced chicken breast.
If a fried starter is calling, the Combination Appetizer ($9.95), presented with a sweet-and-spicy little cucumber salad, delivers a nice assortment of tender seafood, including shrimp, shrimp cakes, shrimp-and-pork spring rolls, squid and gingery-and-spicy fish cakes. If the puffy, battered matter had a crisper, less-oily exterior, it'd be even better.
Except for tacking on a sweet-and-creamy Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee (each $2.95), it'd be hard to improve on the huge Pad Thai. At Bangkok, the old favorite is imbued with a sought-after smoky quality called “wok hei” that arises from skillful stir-frying in a well-seasoned pan (price: $9.95 for the “combination,” with a few good shrimp but plenty of tender chicken and beef). Wok hei lends extra nuance to a noodle entree that's lesser-known but also highly recommended: Pad Kee Mao ($10.95 with a seafood medley), a terrific wide-pasta dish that benefits from the interplay of chili flakes and licorice-scented Thai basil.
Crisp bits of pork belly merge with potent smashed garlic cloves, Chinese broccoli, mushrooms and a nifty brown sauce in the Pad Kana Moo Krob ($11.98), another wok-cooked triumph.
Looking for a Thai curry? Look no further than the medium-spicy and addictive Panang Neua ($8.95). It features beef-stew meat swamped in a drinkable red sauce and sweetened and enriched with coconut milk, and its harmony of forceful flavors again demonstrates Bangkok's enduring appeal.
3277 Refugee Rd., Southeast Side