1123 W Granville Ave
(at Broadway St)
Chicago, IL 60660
I pass by this restaurant all the time since it replaced a divey diner a few years ago but never had a chance to check it out. The former restaurant was a greasy spoon that had some Chinese dishes in the menu, so I thought right away that, hmm, another run-of-the-mill diner with bad Asian food. The other day though, I was so hungry coming from a tough noon interview in Evanston, that as soon as I got out of the Granville El stop, I went to the first restaurant I saw … and Summer Rice and Noodles was it.
I was pleasantly surprised. If you must know, the Granville corridor is not as pretty as the historic Bryn Mawr district, a few blocks south. The local chamber of commerce, for all appearances, has been trying upgrade the street’s look for a number of years with some success. New stores have opened including upscale restaurants, European-style mom and pop stores, and other establishments. There is even a cafe crowd here now.
So that is why I was surprised at Summer. Outside, it looked nothing, old and dingy like any other establishment on the street. The signage seemed promising, pastel green and orange on white, very summery. As soon as I entered the small front room, I realized that this may be a different kind of Asian-style restaurant because of the many citations on the wall – from the Tribune, Chicago and other magazines.
Inside the second door, another surprise … understated elegance – low light, framed paintings, large Chicago skyline photos, a few tables, bar-type window seating, booths and counter/kitchen area, all arranged with good feng shui. Two young people were seated, one occupying a booth, the other a table. I sat in the bar-counter-type window seating so I could ogle at people passing by. I also noticed a stack of food magazines in a corner – from Asia. I was intrigued.
A pretty Asian waitstaff came to my table with the menu and a glass of water. The menu was funkily impressive, the type you can buy from Etsy. Another surprise, the menu was Thai with some Cantonese dishes in between. Surprised because, down the block is a Thai restaurant that has been in the area for years. I don’t know what the market is for Thai restaurants in Granville, but I think it’s pretty small.
Every time I go to a new Thai restaurant, my strategy is to order a salad – usually a papaya or beef salad, and ginger beef or chicken for my entree. Since they didn’t have papaya salad (oh no!), I ordered beef. For my other choice, I decided to do an all beef meal, so I asked for ginger beef. From these two dishes, I can judge right away if I will go back there or not. Also, another criteria (for me) is – if they use spoon and fork for their utensils instead of just fork. Right away, I saw only a fork, so, I was like, hmmm, a sell out. This didn’t bode well.
The wait for the food was longish – but I could hear the sound of the scraping of the ladle on the wok from the kitchen, telling me that they cook from scratch. When the salad arrived, I was floored. It was artfully presented, like a mountain full of goodies. It was also very nicely mixed with aromatic spices and dressing, just tart enough and mildly hot to stimulate your appetite and not numb your tongue for the next course. I especially liked the Chinese parsley on top – it has a more pungent flavor compared to the common parsley. The vegetables were crisp and the beef had that ‘dairy’ taste that I really like but it was too chewy for me. You literally get muscle cramps on your face just chewing the damn rubbery beef. It’s because they probably use a cheap cut of meat.
The ginger beef came – again, beautifully presented: on one side of the plate (really a platter), was a mound of steamed white rice with a carved star-shaped carrot on top, and on the other half is the ginger beef – a generous melange of green vegetables, tender slices of beef (this time), spring onions, and mushroom, in a mildly-hot, gingery sauce.
About the rice – this is the way to make rice. In many restaurants, they bungle the rice – either it’s hard and dry (didn’t water enough) or too gluey (too much water). Here, they serve rice just fluffy enough – served to royalty – as my mother used to say.
For the dish itself, of course it was delicious, you can’t go wrong with Thai food. But the flavors here are quite unique – because – instead of traditional Thai ingredients for this dish – like black fungus and other unrecognizable bits and pieces – they used familiar vegetables like button mushrooms, broccoli and red bell peppers. The genius I think is in the sauce – made with authentic Thai spices, that frankly, I don’t know what they are. So this is truly a fusion cuisine – using simple, recognizable ingredients and texture cooked in exotic Thai spices and compatible to the Filipino palate.
I can’t wait to taste the other dishes this fine restaurant serves.
If you are in Chicago, while this is not a must go to restaurant, if you have time to go around, this is a fine Thai restaurant to go to. Nothing to write home about, but it’s in my neighborhood .