About a year ago, I spotted a restaurant in my neighborhood and became instantly infatuated with it. It’s a Thai spot, painted bright yellow and attached to a laundromat which is painted bright red. Or, the restaurant is red and the laundromat is yellow. Either way, they are eye-catching. Hand-written signs in thick black marker on lined notebook paper are taped up in the window of the laundromat, announcing hours of operation and such. In truth, I’ve never looked at the place very closely. A grainy photocopy of the restaurant’s menu is taped up in windows at both entrances. Walking past one day, I inspected the menu (nothing unexpected), dubbed the place the Thai Laundromat, and added it to my mental list of new restaurants to try when feeling adventurous.
It’s a whole different kind of expectation when gearing up to go to a restaurant that you’ve heard nothing about. When some wingnut with her own food ‘blog writes a rave about the taco cart on Lombard, everyone falls all over themselves in a rush for the famed carnitas, right? The eager gastrophiles cram in line and take turns reciting their favorite lines from the wingnut’s review. They know what to expect, so there’s no use waiting. It lacks suspense. But when the only notions you have of a place are of your making entirely, it’s a whole different show. The story is yours to write and until you’ve walked into the restaurant for the first time, nothing will contradict you.
So it was with the Thai Laundromat. I imagined the two businesses might be joined on the inside as well, giving diners a view of their tumbling whites while enjoying a plate of salad rolls and peanut sauce. I smelled dryer sheets and stain remover mingling above my head with the aromas of garlic, ginger and coconut milk wafting up from the meal. While I was eager to perhaps add a new eatery to my list, this game of make-believe was a guaranteed good time, and I wasn’t up for disappointment should the place turn out to be a dive. Frankly, I was prepared to be pleased if the food turned out to be just a notch above edible.
And then on one otherwise unremarkable day, I decided to quit dreaming and taste the stuff.
That was months ago, and now I regard the Thai Laundromat as my place, the food I am always in the mood for, the restaurant to which I take all new friends and out-of-town visitors. I’ll admit to being somewhat fanatical here, but for me the Thai Laundromat is all that I love of my neighborhood, poured into vinyl booths and large, ornate wooden carvings, into steamed white rice, green curry, and fresh salad rolls.
You would never know that the restaurant has a self-serve laundromat for a conjoined twin. Their skins may look similar, but entering the restaurant renders unsustainable all thoughts of bleach and dryer sheets and change machines. You might admire the lovely glass light fixtures hanging over the tables and booths, or the display case of teeny figurines just inside the street entrance. You may even notice that there are other people present, but soon your world narrows to the menu, to your company at the table, and to the fantastically good food.
I need you to appreciate the gravity of the following sentence: I could eat the Thai Laundromat’s Pumpkin Curry every day for a month and not tire of it. A surprise to some of the folks I’ve eaten with there, the pumpkin curry isn’t made with the jack-o-lantern type pumpkins most familiar to the western palate. Rather, it features the kabocha squash, which you may have seen before in Japanese cooking, perhaps on a plate of tempura veggies. The kabocha is a squat winter squash with rough-looking (though edible) dark green skin. It is egg yolk yellow on the inside, and the texture of the flesh falls somewhere between silky and crumbly. I’ve never met a kabocha that I didn’t love. It is sweet and earthy. It is just the thing to add to the Thai Laundromat’s spicy sweet coconut-and-basil curry sauce.
I’ve tried to work my way through the menu. About sixty percent of the time, I manage to order something other than the Pumpkin Curry. Usually, this is only possible because I’ve talked someone else into getting it and sharing with me. The Pineapple Fried Rice is always a winner, and features a ton of the largest cashew nuts I have seen anywhere. Drunken Noodles make me wiggly. The Peanut Curry, not printed on the regular menu (it was a special once, and I’ve just kept on ordering it), is one of the best things I have ever tasted anywhere. Rather than itemize my delights, which will only keep you here longer when you should be putting on your coat to go find this place, I’ll instead share my only two disappointments. I’ve had two stir-fries that were merely good, not great. The Garlic and Pepper and the Cashew Nut dishes just don’t live up to the (very high) standards that this place has set for itself. I finished them both of course, scraping the bowl with the plastic spatula I’ve taken to carrying in my purse when I eat there, but the high wasn’t as euphoric as I’ve come to expect of the place.
I have one other complaint about the Thai Laundromat: it’s getting crowded in there. Every time I go in for a meal it feels busier, like someone’s let the secret out. In the beginning of my relationship with the restaurant, back when I was only a causal user, some days my friends and I were one of only a few groups for lunch or dinner. These days, most of the tables are filled and there is a regular flow of folks who stop in for take out orders.
It’s hard to know just what to do when a gal finds a really great restaurant like this. Selfishly, I am tempted to want to suspend it in time. I want there always to be an open table for me. I want the food to be as good tomorrow as it was today. In fact, I don’t think I could handle it being any better. A diet of little more than coconut milk, basil, and kabocha squash probably lacks some necessary nutrient or vitamin or something. I hope they never reupholster the booths or repaint the neon green bathroom, and I hope they never have to hire a new cook or server. One in six visits, the place really does smell a bit like laundry detergent, and I like that too. But it’s unreasonable and unhealthy to resist the sort of inevitable change that marks the growth and maturing of a good restaurant. As the neighborhood changes, the Thai Laundromat will have to change a little bit with it, and I really ought to celebrate their success, not mourn it.
I love watching the slow grins bloom across the faces of my more skeptical friends when they take their first bite of green curry or spring roll. You said it’d be good, they tell me, but I didn’t think it was gonna be that good. It seems that now my desire to go public with this pleasant surprise is larger than my wish to keep the Thai Laundromat all for myself, as if that were even possible. I have heard other happy patrons chatting about the upswing in business, and I am ready to make peace with having to share my find with the rest of the city. So, dear readers, go there. Go if you love Thai food, because you won’t be disappointed. Go if you’ve never had Thai food and you want to try it. Go even if you think you hate Thai food, because I am confident that this place will change your mind. Go, and then tell your friends, your mom and your colleagues about it. If it’s going to get crowded in there, at least we can try to fill it with people who have good taste in little known food ‘blogs.
Monsoon Thai Cuisine
4236 N Mississippi (at Skidmore)