Almost two decades ago, Vanna Gumtrontip worked as assistant chef in her sister's Thai restaurant in Bangkok, where she learned the secrets of preparing authentic, spicy Thai dishes. Now living in Chicago, she's been serving up the same Thai recipes to Lincoln Square residents since 1996 in the tiny storefront restaurant Spoon Thai. It makes sense, then, that if you stick to your standard pad thai and gyoza, you'll be missing out on some of the tastiest meals coming out of this restaurant's kitchen.
While the English menu isn't without merit (including the standard thin Thai omelet stuffed with shrimp, tofu and coconut), you're better braving it and asking for the translated Thai menu. The mien camp, lettuce wrapped around dried shrimp, ginger, lime, cilantro and toasted coconut is a popular choice, as is the haw mok, curried catfish steamed in banana leaf cups. The signature dish, a banana blossom salad with chicken tossed in coconut milk, is almost as famous as the house-made fish balls with green curry, which require one-day advance order. For dessert, skip the lychee fruit or ice cream and opt for the taro and sweet potato pearls in sweet coconut milk.
Spoon Thai's tiny interior is as simple as its menu is spectacular, with only a handful of tables and minimal decorations. Odds are, though, you'll be too busy savoring your food to care much about the decor.
Average cost: <$10
Centerstage Reviewer: Kate Rockwood