I recently directed an episode of the HGTV television show Small Space, Big Style
, and when the lunchtime hour arose, my crew, the ridiculously adorable homeowners and I set out to find some good grub in Buena Park (on the HGTV dime, of course).
They recommended trying the fantastic burgers at Buena Bar, a traditional bar near their chic 350-square-foot apartment, but we skittered over only to find that it was closed for lunch. Of course this meant I had to dig deep into my mental I-ate-at-this-strip-mall-joint-once archives and bust out my insider knowledge of Thai Aroma.
Funny, they lived two blocks from this great little Thai place and happened to be on an extreme budget, yet they'd never paid attention to its faded exterior. Jeez, open your eyes, kids; just because a restaurant is in a dusty old strip mall doesn't mean the food's no good. It just means it's probably gonna be cheap and yummy.
Once the six of us were seated in the deserted dining room, the friendly waitress presented us with the standard menus as well as the daily lunch specials menu. Once I saw the latter, it was on. Just $5.99 for soup, appetizer and entree? I knew everyone would gravitate toward that cheapo deal, which allowed me the chance to order close to every appetizer on the menu as well as a plethora of additional dishes. Hell, why not? There's nothing like a meal on the house to prompt me to order everything my heart desires.
The crowd could not have been more delighted, especially the homeowners. They were literally gape-jawed when I peppered them with rounds of crab rangoon, vegetarian spring rolls, shrimp and chicken pot stickers, fried shrimp and crab rolls plus baby eggrolls. I could feel them eyeballing me like I was mad, but I reassured them that it was all on HGTV and they didn't have to worry about the bill.
After a huge sigh of relief from the kids (they were used to a very tight budget when it comes to food, whereas I blow through hundreds stalking out the best bites), everyone ordered their respective lunch specials with their chosen heat count. Some were at a six, the highest, while I was a measly two and still guzzling water.
Soon after ordering, the appetizers arrived. Every single one of them was a great lead into the exquisiteness of Thai culture. Expert amounts of spice and just enough heat make for mighty fine piles of fried goodies that the Thais are known for (well in the USA at least). Fried shrimp, crab and spinach rolls paired well with perfect triangles of crab rangoon, and how the heck can you mess up a rice paper wrapped Thai eggroll?
Moments later, our entrees started pouring out of the jam-packed kitchen and I just cannot believe what six bones will get you these days in an ethnic restaurant. My red tofu curry was an eye-popping blast of beauty. While everyone politely ate small bites of their basil chicken, pad Thai and fried rice, I promptly made a giant mess by dumping my entire bowl of bright red coconut milk tinged curry over sweet jasmine rice and proceeded to douse it with all the left over sauces from the appetizers.
Seconds later, I realized I'd created the most superb creation—what's known as the perfect bite of food. I kept offering up tastes of my wondrous concoction to all, to no avail. They were in their own world of Thai heaven. Nothing compares to my masterful bites though so as happy as they were, I was on top of the world.
Bellies full and bill paid (thanks HGTV), we headed back over to the homeowners' tiny haven to film more of their ingenious decorating ideas. Hey, some people have a way with design; I have a way with bites of food. I dig my gift better.
The Final Rave: It was pretty cool to show some folks a hidden gem in their own hood. Thai Aroma is BYOB and budget friendly, so I have a feeling those two will be hoofing it over there more often than not.
Keep It Going
Do it: Karaoke Restaurant
This West Rogers Park strip mall find is a true wonder. Rent out private karaoke rooms, bring in your own food and drink (or order from their kitchen) and prepare to make an utter fool of yourself.
Eat it: Wholly Frijoles
Another strip mall secret, I still haul to the north side for the amazing Mexican this place churns out. And, seriously the mango cheesecake needs no altering; it's already a master.
Drive it: Retro Bistro
Man, I've heard that the food at this Top 10 Zagat-rated French bistro is amazing (and in a strip mall no less). I guess I could roll up north to give it a go. Hell, I've gone further.
Get crazy with it: Katy's Dumpling House
Though the name implies dumplings abound, this off radar strip mall gem is more widely known for their hand pulled noodles. It's spicy dishes are worth the trek to Westmont anytime.
Fatcake Misty Tosh explores back-alley eateries, holes-in-the-wall and seedy ethnic joints as she treks the city in search of the next raving dish. Join her in the quest.