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Perhaps five bites into our meal at Malee Thai & Vietnamese Restaurant & Bar, my friend Chloe and I decided Malee needs to relocate. The reason we came to this conclusion is that the current site -- a Travelodge on Lombard, of all places -- seems to draw mostly tourists, the equivalent of a one-night stand in the restaurant business. (No matter how artfully you seduce them, chances are you'll get no love come tomorrow.) In our opinion, Malee deserves better. We realized that a few pesky details -- the high cost of moving and remodeling, for example -- might render our suggestion a tad impractical. Thus, we turned to a more humble pursuit: deciding once and for all, with God as our witness, whether Thailand or Vietnam produces the best food in Southeast Asia.
345-9001. Open every day for lunch from noon to 3 p.m. and for dinner from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Reservations accepted. Not wheelchair accessible. Parking: free at Travelodge, otherwise difficult. Muni: 30, 42, 47, 49. Noise level: low to moderate.
Vietnamese/Thai pupu platter $7.95
Chicken satay $6.75
Po tak $9.95
Barbecued pork $9.95
Evil jungle $8.95
Mango with sticky rice $9.95
It's not every restaurant that sets a perfect stage for such a battle, but then, Malee Thai & Vietnamese Restaurant & Bar isn't every restaurant. I've never heard Muzak quite like the Muzak at Malee, nor have I eaten at another place where a miniature island reminiscent of a secret fortress in a James Bond movie juts from a small fountain topped with dry ice mist. I've certainly never heard a Thai waiter giggle as wildly as ours did when I ordered what was, by my standards, a rather average 10-course meal for two. At first he tried to stop us ("No! It's too much!"), but then he dragged a second table over to accommodate our feast as the tourist couple next to us gaped with awe at the whole spectacle. Had a Fisherman's Wharf sea lion come strolling in with Sharon Stone on his flipper, their jaws couldn't have dropped any lower.
In other words, interesting things seem to happen at Malee, where a small bar marked by winking Christmas lights and the fountain mentioned above leads to a pair of bright, equally tiny, dining rooms. The place was nearly empty when we strolled in at 8 p.m. on a weekend -- normally a very bad sign -- and syrupy, lilting elevator music added to our sudden desire to run screaming. But then a step farther inside we caught the heavenly scents wafting from Malee's kitchen, and decided to stick around.
As it turned out, that was a wise decision, since Malee is knocking out splendid takes on two similar, but distinct, cuisines. To be brief: Vietnamese food inevitably means spring rolls, fish sauce, and the noodle soup known as pho, while Thais relish curries, coconut milk, and hot chilies. Malee offers all these things in separate sections of its elaborate menu. Thus, after indulging in a pair of smooth, creamy piña coladas, we selected five dishes from each nation for a head-to-head, no-holds-barred, Thailand vs. Vietnam battle royal.
We began with Hawaiian-style pupu appetizer platters (chef/owner Malee Jones, a Thai who once worked in a Vietnamese restaurant, hails most recently from the islands). Since both the Vietnamese and the Thai platters contained four dishes apiece, we decided that the first round would be worth two points in our scoring system. Vietnam came charging out of the gate with an exquisite selection of spring rolls: three hot, crispy, deep-fried cylinders stuffed with minced pork, mushrooms, and glass noodles, plus three vegetarian rolls with tofu and potato, all meant to be dipped in tangy fish sauce then wrapped with fresh mint and cucumber into whole lettuce leaves. Four more spring rolls -- all packaged in soft, translucent rice paper, two with shrimp, mint, bean sprouts, and vermicelli noodles, and two vegetarian versions without shrimp -- proved equally superb, especially when paired with a rich, sultry peanut sauce or a dark, spicy, soy-based ambrosia.
In fact, Vietnam looked like a shoo-in until we sank our teeth into the first item on the Thai platter: chicken satay. I don't know how the kitchen did it, but that meat was cooked to a melting, almost liquid consistency -- without a doubt, the finest taste of Round 1. Springy fish cakes served with a razor-sharp sweet-and-sour sauce led to tender bits of fried calamari and a pair of chicken wings stuffed with minced pork and glass noodles. Faced with a difficult decision, we powwowed, then decided the Vietnamese pupu platter was a bit more interactive than the Thai version. Round 1, by a mint leaf, to Vietnam.
The Vietnamese salad (goi du du) we selected for Round 2 resembled a dish often found under the Thai name som tum: crunchy, finely shredded green papaya served with tomato, ground peanuts, mint, and cilantro, then bathed in a light, piquant soy sauce dressing instead of the standard Thai chili and lime. Though quite tasty in a delicate sort of way, this poor salad stood no chance against our ferocious Thai larb -- a flavorful blend of marinated ground chicken, mint, lime juice, and chilies. The soups (Round 3) proved a bit more controversial, pitting a singingly electric Vietnamese hot and sour soup (lemongrass, bean sprouts, tomato, lime juice, chicken, and chilies) against a Thai po tak (licorice-y, basil-rich lemongrass broth filled with prawns, calamari, scallops, dried chilies, lime juice, and chunks of gingery galangal). Chloe preferred the former for its zing, while I favored the complexity of the latter. To break the draw, I used the following criteria: I write these reviews, and Chloe doesn't. Therefore, we had a 2-2 draw.
Next we journeyed into the wondrous realm of the noodle -- a fiery, Thai-style chow fun with broccoli, soy-based black sauce, hot chilies, and basil vs. Vietnam's chilled vermicelli noodles, mint, cucumber, crushed peanut, cilantro, and deep-fried pork rolls. Here, Vietnamese subtlety trumped Thai exuberance. In fact, as we sampled our final Vietnamese entree -- immeasurably savory barbecued pork marinated with lemongrass and black sauce -- it looked like they were going to be shedding tears in Bangkok.
But then came our final Thai entree, evil jungle -- by far the most appropriately named dish I've ever come across. Chloe took the first bite. She stared at me for a second, her eyes widened, and then, as the evil jungle worked its magic, she whipped a handkerchief from her pocket to mop the beads of sweat suddenly streaming down her forehead. At first taste, I wasn't sure what the commotion was about, since this so-called evil jungle appeared to be a mildly spicy mix of ground beef, red and green bell peppers, onions, and basil. I saw no chilies, but Lord knows they were in there: As the heat spread from my gullet though every cell in my body I realized I'd just swallowed the culinary equivalent of an atomic bomb. It was better than any drug, or at least any I've tried, and all at once I noticed three things: 1) The Muzak sounded different, containing vaguely Arabic riffs, 2) I, too, was pouring sweat, and 3) we had a 3-3 deadlock, to be settled over dessert.
For the tie-breaking round we sampled a rich Vietnamese tapioca with coconut milk and banana followed by Thai-style mango over sticky rice, then began our final deliberations. Should the sultry, sweet pearls of tapioca earn Vietnam ultimate victory? Or should the juicy, luscious mango paired with creamy rice paste assure Thai bragging rights? And did my skin really smell like evil jungle, or was I hallucinating? I asked Chloe to give me a sniff, but she wasn't about to go there. Finally she declared the tapioca her favorite, while I preferred the mango. After giving the matter some thought, I decided there was only one way to break the tie.
Two days later, my skin still smelled like evil jungle -- the gift that keeps on giving. Congratulations to the good people of Thailand.
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