Try a New Thai in Evanston, Illinois
Flower petals rest like butterfly wings atop bite-size chunks of grilled octopus. Arranged in an artful swirl among dots of sauce, the dish seems almost too pretty to eat.
Then my gaze lands on the paper-thin black wafers-lacy, like sea fan coral, and tucked between bites of meat-and curiosity wins. I lift my chopsticks and reach in for a bite. NaKorn's dishes aren't anything like the Thai takeout most Americans know, and that's the point. "We wanted a restaurant that reminded us of home," says co-owner Sam Rattanopas, who emigrated to the United States in 1996 with her childhood friend, Mina Sudsaard.
Pad Thai or chicken satay? Don't even look for them on the menu at the Evanston restaurant Sam and Mina opened in 2016. "Those are considered street food or fast food in Thailand," Sam says. "We wanted to introduce Americans to the dishes served in Thai homes. You wouldn't serve hot dogs and fries to your family every night, would you?"
A quick L ride north from Chicago, NaKorn shares a neighborhood with pricey world-class restaurants and affordable eats that draw students from nearby Northwestern University. NaKorn hits a friendly middle ground with prices from $8 to around $32.
The vibe is warm and cozy. Bamboo birdcages glow as light fixtures, and Burberry-like plaid wallpaper wraps central columns. Mina, a graphic designer, brought it all together and hand-drew the restaurant's massive mural of a Bangkok street.
True to Thai custom, NaKorn serves seasonal entrees. Try Mina's Braised Short Ribs-tender slices of meat served in a mouthwatering broth, or Khun Sompit's Big Fish, a type of sea bass. Here, it's named after Sam's father and served whole, just how he liked it.
NaKorn's dishes aren't as spicy-hot as you might expect. "Thai food has five taste experiences: sweet, hot, sour, bitter and salty," Sam says, adding that true Thai cooking is more about complexity and balance than heat. That means you won't see pepper icons or cautions on the menu. And along with pad Thai, you probably won't miss them.