Kapi fried rice at Andy's Thai Kitchen (ATK) (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune )
Cheap date: Andy's Thai Kitchen
946 W. Wellington Ave. 773-549-7821
Before head chef Andy Aroonrasameruang left it to open Andy's Thai Kitchen, Tac Quick Thai in Lakeview was one of my favorite, no-frills neighborhood gems. I liked taking first or second dates to the sparsely decorated restaurant tucked under the Sheridan Red Line station mostly because the food was flavorful and delicious, but also because any man who could win my heart would first have to stand up to the heat of the beloved som tum poo ma salad. The knockout dishes were always those on the "secret" Thai menu, which was a separate sheet that you had to request from your server. At ATK, chef Aroonrasameruang does away with the dual menus and simply presents well-priced, bold Thai food (a BYOB policy sweetens the deal) with a bit more polish to the dining room.
Main attraction: Authenticity. Sure, Aroonrasameruang's always had obligatory pad Thai and dumplings on the menu, but risks are rewarded when ordering here. Tip-toe past your comfort zone with the sai krog isaan ($6.50), a funky, almost sour Thai-style pork and rice sausage with a richness that's countered by a slightly acidic, fermented flavor. Thankfully, ATK's retained the same crisp, fresh som tum Thai green papaya salad that he served at Tac, still in all its spicy, chili- and shrimp-flecked glory. At ATK, Aroonrasameruang also offers a version of the salad that I'd never seen at Tac. Called som tum tod ($10), the sliced green papaya is fried in a light and crunchy tempura batter that removes some of the fresh taste of the fruit, but goes a long way in moderating the chilis' heat.
Best value: Nothing beats a big bowl of noodles or rice in terms of bang for your buck. Kapi fried rice ($9.50) sounds basic, but it's served deconstructed, with the rice separate from the sweet pork and all the others mix-ins. It's a great exercise for Asian food newbies, who can taste all the individual flavors of the dish before combining them. Proving that even the basics are memorable here, my Thai green curry ($10.50) packed a complex, gradual spiciness that wasn't masked by the too-sweet, thick coconut taste that often plagues this dish. It's served over a thin omelet with a side of white rice, both of which act as an effective sponge for the sauce. Even ubiquitous chicken pad Thai seems new, thanks to fresh ingredients and a light hand in saucing the noodles.
Tip: Service was hit-or-miss during my meal. No one took our order for quite a while, but then our server cared enough to steer me away from a dish he thought wasn't up to par that night. If you're unsure whether you and your date could make conversation for long stretches of time while you wait, this might not be the best choice.
Sample order: Som tum Thai ($7) + duck curry ($9.50) + chicken pad Thai ($7.95) + $1 corkage fee per person ($2) + tax + tip = $35