Best Thai food for the money

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Talard Thai Asian Market (5353 N. Broadway) opened in fall 2019, and in summer 2020 it launched a cash-only hot bar in the back of the store. Like Immm Rice & Beyond’s similar hot bar, it approximates the cheap but reliable offerings of the classic Thai curry rice shop, glorified in the West as “authentic street food.” A hot two-course combo with jasmine rice is $7.50, and three items will set you back just $7.95.

If it were ordinary American Thai dishes, a deal like this could still be a “so what?”. But Talard doesn’t just sell familiar favorites such as panaeng, massaman and khai phalo. The hot bar is one of only two places in town where I’ve come across kaeng tai pla, a tangy, spicy southern curry made from fermented fish innards – Talard’s version uses kabocha, sprouts bamboo, fish, Thai eggplant and long beans, and sometimes also includes sharp and very bitter pea eggplant. You’ll also regularly find kaeng hang le, a smooth northern pork belly curry that balances sour, sweet, salty, spicy and funky, with lots of ginger and Thai pickled garlic.

Credit: Philip Montoro for Chicago Reader

Especially on weekends, when the hot bar offers more variety, you might see Lao dishes, among them kaeng nor mai, a bamboo shoot soup made with the earthy juice of yanang leaves, okra, mushrooms and squash. Weekends are also sometimes synonymous with new promotions, announced on Talard’s Facebook page: be sure to ask for the new and you might be lucky enough to order kanom krok, Hainanese chicken and rice or fried bananas. On any day except Wednesday, you can get som tam, with add-ons such as salted eggs, pickled crabs, and pla ra. The hot bar opens at 10:00 a.m., when the market does, and usually closes at 6:00 p.m. (or earlier if business is slow).

And because Talard’s grocery store will surely appeal to you too, I have to mention that it’s often even cheaper to cook your own Thai food. I recommend starting with the cookbooks of a part-time Chicagoan and a friend of the Reader Leela Punyaratabandhu, or with her lively and useful newsletter, the Epestle.

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