4661 Park Boulevard, University Heights
It was a dark and slightly stormy night. I mean, rain sprinkles every now and then. Not that I was running to get out of it. It felt kinda fresh.
But in University Heights, on Park Boulevard, the lights were starting to go out. Man. I always seem to end up here just when everything is closing down.
I’m hoping that this French-style place with really good prices is still open. Savory Deli & Market. Had a delicious wine-soaked beef bourguignon last time. Another time, a great mussels and spaghetti.
But when I get to it, just before Park Boulevard ends at Adams, it’s disappeared. The 1940 storefront is now something called Plumeria. Oh, yeah. That’s a flower, right? Frangipani (that’s the common name), the little yellow-and-white blossom they call the “egg-yolk flower” in China. (I learned this, natch, from the all-knowing Carla.)
Whatever... Had red meat in mind, but the sign on the canopy reads “Vegetarian Food.” Sign below goes further: “All of our dishes are free of fish sauces and animal products, with the exception of optional egg in some dishes.”
There’s a Thai place across the road I’ve thought about before, Bahn Thai, but that’s closed at this hour, too. Besides, there seem to be plenty of people in here, so maybe it’s good. I open the door and come up to the little welcome counter.
“You open for a while?”
Because it’s now well past 9:00.
“Oh, yes. We close at 10:00,” says this lady. Patty. She leads me to a booth. It’s all pale purples and greens on the walls, royal purple on the ceiling. The floor is white concrete with hand-painted vines crawling between the tables. On the right wall, a mural of flowers really brightens up the place. Makes it look bigger.
I sit down and start checking out the menu. Have to say: I’m already worried. It looks like it’s gonna be imitations of real things, replacing them with that bland master of disguise, soy.
I look around. It’s a bit United Nations in here. I hear Spanish behind me, English ahead, Thai on the left…
In fact, now that I start seriously looking through the menu, this seems to be a Thai place. Yes, all the dishes are written in Thai. So, why wouldn’t they say so, like, on the signage outside?
Of course, this is vegetarian Thai. No meats. Like, the Thai crispy rolls (five for $4.95) have dried ’shrooms, cabbage, and carrots inside, with a sweet-and-sour pineapple sauce to dip them in.
The satay ($4.95) has four skewers full of marinated tofu or mock chicken. The difference? Probably not much in taste.
Next page has my favorite, tom yum soup, that veggie mixture with tofu balls, lemongrass, lime juice, and “fresh chili.” It’s $3.95 for the small bowl, $6.95 for the large. I order a small one from Jeremy.
“How spicy would you like it?” he asks. “On a scale of one to ten.”
“Ten being the big burn?” I ask.
“Oh…make it a nine,” I say. “Need a bit of waking up.”
“Yeah, not a prob,” I say.
While he’s away, I pick out a curry that sounds promising: the pumpkin. Love curries, and this one comes with “pumpkin, eggplant, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, and fresh basil.” Bolstered with a red curry sauce. Then you have to choose which “mock” animal you want to eat with it. Duck, chicken, beef, pork, or shrimp. Or you can have vegetables or steamed tofu or fried tofu. Costs $8.50, except for the shrimp. That’s $9.50.
I go for the duck.
“Good choice,” says Patty, who let me in. She’s Thai and also the owner. “Duck has the most flavor, even though it’s not gluten-free. My daughter Tara has always been vegetarian, and now vegan, and what that’s done is to lead me back to my roots. In Samae Sarn, in Thailand. What my grandmother cooked, we got from the fields, from our garden. Everything was organic because we put nothing on them. We ate mostly vegetables. No sugars, except palm sugar. Fresh-squeezed lime juice, fresh chili — not paste — fresh galangal [the Asian garlic]. I started this restaurant because of my daughter. She grosses out over meat, and it was hard for her to find places where everybody could eat and not feel they were eating some, like, hospital diet.”
Wow, this woman is motivated.
This is when all three dishes arrive — my tom yum soup, the pumpkin curry, and a plate of brown rice, piled in the shape of a heart. The soup is hot-hot-hot. Sweat breaks out on the back of my neck. Glass of water becomes the fire truck. But the tom yum delivers flavor, too. The tofu and veggies beautifully draw you back into taking another spoonful, even though you know burn city’s gonna hit you again.
Now, I load up some pumpkin curry and dump it onto the rice plate. Oh, yeah. Great taste. Pumpkin, eggplant, bamboo, that curry. It has a slightly sweet curry flavor. The “duck” meat chunks and pumpkin have you swearing it’s all tender meat.
“That’s our own curry paste in there,” Patty says. “We grind down our own chili.”
They’ve only been here a few months, but this isn’t Patty’s first place. “I had the Thai Joint restaurant up on Adams Avenue,” she says. “We got squeezed out of there, so we jumped when we saw this space was for sale.”
But…right opposite another Thai place? Bahn Thai?
Ah, maybe that’s why no mention of “Thai” here.
“We want people coming for vegan food first, before they come for Thai,” says Patty. “Also, we want to stay friends with Bahn Thai.”
Whatever, this has cured me of my fear of vegan food. Honest truth is, I couldn’t tell the difference between this and standard Thai food.
Next challenge: sell the concept to the carnivore I live with.
Prices: Thai crispy rolls (with ’shrooms, cabbage, carrots, sweet-and-sour pineapple sauce, five for $4.95; satay (four marinated tofu or mock-chicken skewers), $4.95; tom yum soup (veggies, tofu balls, lemongrass, lime juice, chili), $3.95 (small), $6.95 (large); pumpkin curry (with pumpkin, eggplant, bell peppers, bamboo shoots, basil), $8.50; ka pow, crispy minced soy chicken, $9.95; pad Thai (rice vermicelli, tofu, tamarind sauce, peanuts, $8.50
Hours: Monday–Friday, 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., lunch; 4:30–10:00 p.m., dinner; Friday–Saturday, open till 11:00 p.m.; Sunday, closed
Nearest Stop: Park Boulevard at Madison