Monday, September 17, 2012

Khao Soi Battle - TAC Quick vs ATK


Some fans I know of Northern Thai food consider Khao Soi the quintessential dish of the region, and have a near-obsession with their quest to find “authentic” versions.   With a unique flavor that includes a mix of spices such as cinnamon and clove with coconut and more common curry spices, Khao Soi is indeed something special.  In Chicago we’re lucky enough to have a number of restaurants that serve the dish, with Sticky Rice’s version by far the most complex and delicious, in my book.

TAC Quick has always had a number of excellent Northern Thai dishes, and though I hadn’t tried their Khao Soi in a few years I remembered it fondly, if not with the same gusto as the one from Sticky Rice.  With the recent chef shakeup at TAC,  I decided to see how the place was doing without its well-regarded chef and use Khao Soi as a benchmark to compare the Andy-less TAC with Andy’s new place, ATK.

The Khao Soi curry flavors at TAC were as good as I remembered, with subtle heat balancing sweet spice and creamy coconut.  The delicious accoutrements were as I remembered too: sour fermented greens, raw red onions, crunchy ground peanuts and crispy fried noodles that sat atop the boiled noodles within the sauce.  Delicious as it is, TAC’s version is more subtle than the one at Sticky Rice, where there is a pronounced sourness in the sauce and more robust spicing.  Sticky Rice also uses wide noodles instead of the thin ones at TAC, and the heartiness of wide noodles seems to stand up better in a dish like this.  Still, by any account TAC’s Khao Soi was and still is a tasty bowl of food.

From the identical square white bowl to the placement of a big green lettuce leaf, visually the ATK Khao Soi is identical to the TAC version.  Clearly this is either Andy’s construction that the people at TAC have maintained, or it’s one that he learned at TAC and has taken with him to ATK.  The identical type of noodles and list of accoutrements were here too.  Where the ATK version departed in a bad way was in execution.  The boiled noodles arrived in one big, inseparable clump which made them darn near impossible to eat.  The peanuts were ground too finely, rendering them pasty instead of crunchy.  The curry flavors were there and by avoiding the other stuff I was still able to enjoy this Khao Soi, but the execution errors took it several notches below TAC’s version and if this remains how ATK serves its Khao Soi, I’d say it’s the worst version available in Chicago.  Of course ATK is in it’s very early days and it’s certainly possible that the kitchen will find its footing.
I'm not sure what if anything all this says about ATK, and I certainly hope it is or turns into another place for excellent Thai food in Chicago.  Perhaps the two most important things that came from the TAC vs. ATK battle were (1) encouragement that TAC may continue to thrive even after the loss of its chef; and (2) a reminder to get to Sticky Rice soon for Chicago's best Khao Soi.