February 28, 2013
P.S. Bangkok is one of those Thai restaurants that was around when not many Thai restaurants were, and even back then, it stood out as exotic.
The place opened in 1983 on what was a not-so-bustling stretch of Clark Street south of Wrigley Field (doors down from the tracks over Sheffield Avenue and Roscoe Street), and the menu wasn't your typical pick-your-meat variety of red, green, yellow and Panang curries plus ginger and cashew chicken. It went on and on, page after page, offering close to 120 dishes with names such as Love Me Tender duck and golden coconut chicken and lotus blossom curry and Bite Size Delight.
Even the familiar stuff didn't taste familiar. The steamed dumplings weren't simple pot stickers (also on the menu) but folded little rice-flour crepes containing a sweet-punchy combination of ground chicken, garlic and pickled radishes, and topped with crunchy roasted garlic. The pad thai came with crispy noodles or the regular soft rice ones, and its tamarind-and-vinegar sauce boasted a surprising kick. Pretty much everything tasted different from other places, usually spicier, sometimes sweeter, often at the same time.
The place was distinct and homey enough — with its interior shingled roofs and wood paneling and abundance of Thai paintings, sculptures and display cabinet filled with ceramics — that when friends visited from out of town, I often took them there: You don't get Thai food like this back where you live. That they invariably were impressed encouraged my soon-to-be-wife and me to host our rehearsal dinner there.
I remember many years ago, my friend Carollina brought along her cat in a carrier — for some reason that escapes me — that she stowed under the table. When the server spotted the carrier, she said, "Cat!" and then went about taking our orders. This was a mellow neighborhood place. (The cat was quiet throughout the meal, which was a relief because I couldn't imagine cat mewls coming from an unknown location being good for business.)
But the neighborhood changed, the restaurant scene changed, lives changed and business changed. Sukanya Buraketrachakul, now 56 and known as Sue, had opened P.S. Bangkok with her husband, who worked in the kitchen, but they split in 1997, and she's been running the place solo since then.
That strip of Clark Street boasts more bars and restaurants now, including the well-regarded if more traditional Thai Classic across the street, but, Sue said, fewer retail shoppers walk the area — and parking is as much of a nightmare as ever, particularly with so many permit and Cubs night-game restrictions. P.S. Bangkok is the kind of restaurant made for folks who return time and again to say hi to Sue and to enjoy her unique cooking, but it's anchored in a neighborhood where people often don't reside for too long (mea culpa), and the newcomers don't necessarily gravitate to an established Thai restaurant when hipper-looking options such as the next-door Blokes & Birds gastropub populate the area.
"Very difficult," Sue said of the neighborhood. "Before it was like family."
She said some people will walk out when they discover that she has a liquor license and thus charges a corkage fee ($7 for wine, $2 for beer; Thai Classic is BYOB), or a crowd will wander in seeking only the restrooms.
So there's an out-of-its-element quality to P.S. Bangkok these days. Sue admits business is slow — so slow that she's had to let go of every nonfamily employee. Her two older sisters, Pojana and Nui, help out, as does a niece, and she pays a service to do deliveries. (Her brother, Ruckkiat, operates the independent P.S. Bangkok 2 in the DePaul area.)
And Sue continues welcoming guests and working the kitchen, pursuing a life she learned when she was growing up in Bangkok and her father was operating a noodle shop.
"My mom and my dad, they are great cooks, and also my father cooked very spicy," she said. "I toned it down, and I created my own thing too."
The menu remains huge: 94 items, by her count, plus options for adding mixed vegetables, tofu or a variety of meats or seafood to each entree. Sue prides herself on making all of the sauces, aside from the appetizer garnishes, to order. The food doesn't take as long as deep-dish pizza, but it also doesn't come out with throw-it-on-the-wok hyperspeed.
"We don't precook food," she said. "That's the point. A lot of people who are my old customers, they understand, but the people who've never been in my restaurant, they come here and sometimes they expect it to be quick like most of the restaurants. I cannot do like that."
Yet many entrees remain less than $10, and what you get is worth the wait. The Rama curry, which works stir-fried ground peanuts into a coconut tamarind sauce and pours it over a bed of steamed spinach, has the velvety yumminess of a traditional peanut sauce but with more complexity and pow. I almost invariably order that or the Siamese curry noodles, basically a Thai pasta dish featuring a tangy red curry over spinach noodles accompanied by broccoli, carrots and baby corn.
The banana blossom salad — which mixes steamed shrimp or chicken with banana blossoms (almost like a sweeter artichoke heart), ground peanuts, roasted garlic, shallots, chilies and coconut — has a sauce so tasty that I wind up tilting the plate so I can scoop up the rest with a spoon. That's just scraping the menu surface, and you never know when Sue will make something such as a pork-lemongrass sausage.
There's so much turnover of businesses and people in that neighborhood that I'm always grateful to find P.S. Bangkok still around, as tastily idiosyncratic as ever. Sue owns the building and doesn't plan on going anywhere, though she sure would appreciate it if business would pick up. So if you have to use the bathroom, stay for the food.
3345 N. Clark St.
Known for: Banana blossom salad, Siamese curry noodles, garlic smothered grilled fish
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