Rainbow Thai (4825 North Western Avenue) is absolutely our favorite recent food find, and it totally changed the way we think about Thai food in the city. In fact, we like it so much, a part of us wants to delete this post and not add to the increasing number of Chicagoans who swear by Rainbow Thai. We have visited Rainbow Thai 5 or 6 times now, and the major change that we noticed on our last visit is that they have expanded into the storefront next door: what was previously only three very small tables is now a welcoming, cozy, tastefully decorated space perfect for eating some of the most unique, rewarding, and clear Thai cuisine in the city.
We went to Rainbow two times in as many weeks, to try to get a flavor for what they had to offer. They have 2 menus: a standard American-friendly Thai menu with your classics like pad see eiw and pad thai, as well as a “Thai” menu of untranslated dishes. Last year, the good people at LTH Forum took the trouble of translating everything on the authentic Thai menu, and good thing they did because we could not get enough of the dishes off this menu. Clients like it so much that now seatings at Rainbow Thai come with three menus: the standard menu, the Thai menu, and a print-off of the LTH Forum page translating it! Clearly, Rainbow Thai approves of the translation and descriptions.
This is a family operation, the son (or sometimes the dad) takes orders and mom cooks. Dishes may not come out right together or super quickly, but that’s ok. This is a place where patience is rewarded. Usually we end up over-ordering and they will say so.They also appeared to be doing a pretty brisk carryout business. Below are some of our favorites: items with an asterisk come from the Thai menu.
- *Kanom Buang yuan – Of Vietnamese origin (banh xeo), these Thai crepes are made of a crispy egg skin and then filled with fresh vegetables. Filling and tasty, we were impressed at how thin and delicate the crepe was.
- *Nam khao tod – When Matt finished this dish for the first time, he immediately walked to the kitchen and said it was the best thing he had eaten in Chicago this year. Five visits later, he says it is still true. Tantalizing caramelized rice is fried together with fish sauce, lime, peanuts, and a special fermented Thai sausage to create a dish that is much more than the sum of these parts: a total exploration of Thai flavor profiles that we have never had in another dish. Just spectacular.
- *Keang paa – Thai Jungle Curry, combining fresh vegetables in a soupy curry with a little heat. This dish is clean and crisp, served with rice on the side.
- *Kao kluk ka pi – At first glance, the various aspects of this dish make no sense together. You receive a plate with a pile of fried rice topped with small dried shrimp, all cooked in shrimp paste; a small mound of pork in sweet/fermented sauce; shredded egg; and thin apple slices. And yet, it all makes sense together. Matt typically orders this alongside the nam khao tod, and it is always too much food. But together they showcase some of the best of what Rainbow Thai has to offer.
- Pad Kra Prow – Basil chicken, a classic finished with spicy fermented sausage, a northern Thai specialty done very well here.
- Pad see eiw – The classic dish and L’s favorite, featuring well-cooked greens and a flavorful soy-based sauce. This version was subtle and delicious, and not as sweet as some versions – a definite winner.
Of course Rainbow Thai also has all your Thai favorites (we’ve heard very good things about their green curry), as well as beverage classics like bubble tea and chaa yen (Thai iced tea). But really, do not come here for the standard menu. Get out of your comfort zone and try some amazing flavor combinations prepared by loving chefs who are genuinely concerned that you like everything you are served. Everything was top notch. Totally fresh and literally made to order. We would return to Rainbow Thai again and again for some old staples as well as new favorites, and you really must get the nam khao tod! Now that there is ample seating, you can even bring your friends.
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