Better than Bangkok
More Paris than prairie, with more than 7.000 restaurants and a galaxy of stellar chefs, Chicago enjoys a growing reputation as a world-class eating destination. Among its top-of-the-line contenders is Arun’s, a showcase for Thai food as creative haute cuisine – a concept that didn’t exist before this place opened in the mid-1980s.
Chef/owner Arun (who cleverly avoided using his surname – Sampanthavivat – for the restaurant’s name) is considered by critics, chef colleagues, and adoring patrons alike to be both genius and artist for his elegant, sensitive interpretation of his native cuisine’s delicate and complex flavors – but he didn’t come to celebrity chefdom in the usual way.
Born and raised on a rubber plantation in Thailand, Arun eventually made his way to Chicago to pursue a doctorate in Asian affairs, and while there was encouraged by friends to participate as partner and chef in a Thai restaurant, despite his complete lack of experience in the kitchen.
The deal fell through but Arun forged ahead solo, and within a year the accolades had begun rolling in. Today, gracious and hospitable Mr. Sampanthavivat (who composes poetry during quiet moments) shuns lucrative opportunities to expand or open branches in other American cities or abroad, remaining in his original elegant if nondescript Irving Park address, where his siblings and mother fill out the forces in the kitchen.
Other chefs come here regularly to be dazzled, and patrons who walk away suspecting they’ve experienced Thai food better than Bangkok’s best (and minus the jetlag) aren’t far off the mark.