Uglier and much bigger than the piranha, the snakehead is a fierce predatory fish native to the rivers of Southeast Asia. Not only does it inhabit the water, but the creature can also breathe air through a pair of rudimentary lungs, allowing it clamor up on the muddy shore. Elsewhere in the world, it’s an aggressive, invasive species with no natural predators, and, scarily, specimens have been caught on this continent in Chesapeake Bay, Southern California, and a freshwater lake in Wisconsin.
You can catch one yourself at Chao Thai Too (CTT), a new restaurant in Elmhurst. Located just off Broadway, the place is a branch of Chao Thai—maybe the city’s best Thai restaurant and one of the few to challenge Sripraphai for the title. But while the original location is small and boxy and green, the new one might be an airplane hangar, with a high ceiling, fierce orange walls, and shiny black furniture taxiing into an interior that narrows as it goes deeper. The new branch has a vastly expanded menu, but now the old place—which you can see if you step outside and look under the Long Island Railroad overpass—does as well, though both spots feature a passel of unique dishes.
Confined to CTT’s menu is the snakehead ($10.50), part of a stunning selection of 46 appetizers. It sails up picturesquely in a brown boat, with the salty, scalliony, peppery sauce in a little reservoir in the stern. The skin-on chunks appear orange like salmon and rife with small bones that provide a nice crunch as you masticate the mellow flesh, turning the tables on one of the world’s great murderers. And the starter section abounds with what were mainly bar snacks in the old country. There are two great sausages, both $9.50: sau-u, something like Polish sausage only with giant shards of embedded garlic; and sai krok, a skinless number attributed to Isaan fragrant with herbs and looking like a long flat meat loaf. Each sausage comes with slices of raw ginger, incendiary bird chiles (so called because avians love them), and lettuce for wrapping.
Like Sripraphai, the restaurant offers dishes from all over the lollipop-shaped country but specializes in food of the north, from Isaan and Chiang Mai, where salads, noodles, and fish are favorite foodstuffs. Perhaps the most unusual recipe on a bill of fare filled with them is homok ($9.50). This mousse—also eaten on the other side of the Mekong River in Laos—is an airy whip of fish, coconut milk, egg, and curry, achieving a lovely shade of dark orange. Two heaps per plate shaped like inverted teacups and cradled in banana leaves, they’re irresistibly good. Also from Isaan are more variations on green-fruit salads than you’ve probably seen before, including an unusual pairing of unripe mango and dried catfish—which comes in chewy agreeable wads (yum pla dook foo, $12.95).
Yum khaiyioma (the cry of a cowboy foodie?) is another salad worth ordering, a strange layering of boiled eggs and greenery propelled by raw ginger, in which the egg whites have been transformed to translucent black—a perfect Halloween dish. Among other oddities is a soup seething with pig organs (tom leuat moo, $9.95), including wobbly large intestines and rectangles of blood Jell-O interspersed with pork meatballs, and crispy stir-fried frog legs flavored with basil (pad kra prao kob). Gnaw on these, and you might never go back to chicken wings.
What about more recognizable Thai dishes? Here the restaurant also delivers, offering a full range of mainly southern curries at reliable spice levels that run from one to three, with the hottest being three, “Thai spicy.” My friends and I asked for 2.5 one afternoon, and the heat was perfect. Massaman curry is a dish brought to the King of Siam’s court by Muslim accountants in the 16th century. Featuring potatoes and peanuts swimming in coconut milk, it’s one of the few dishes on the menu flavored with ground spices instead of herbs and rhizomes. Pick beef or tofu over chicken, because the last consists of boneless, skinless, soulless breast.
Other dishes show more recent outside influences. Among the apps is a plate of perfectly deveined raw shrimp marinated in lemon juice and strewn with thin slices of bitter melon. If you’re used to the usual ceviches and sashimis, it will come as a revelation. Remember, though, that shrimp farming has created tremendous pollution problems along Thailand’s coastline. It might make you think twice about eating them raw.
For more food coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoadVV.