Haikan

Could there have been a better night for ramen? I think not. There was a sprinkle of snow on the ground and a steady cool breeze blew throughout the city. Good thing I made these reservations two weeks ago, just in anticipation of winter weather! I’m sure everyone else had the same idea as we did. Oh, you guys want soup now? Well, too bad! My name’s already on the list!

Haikan exists in the same new, upscale area a block down from 930 Club that Hazel does. In fact, I first noticed it on google maps during the same perusing session in which I first found Hazel. And, lucky for me, this is within walking distance of my house.

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The restaurant is well-lit and semi-traditional inside with plain plywood benches and bar seating from which patrons can watch the chefs do their thang. It’s clean and minimalist.

Thankfully, their menu is also clean and minimalist. No confusion about the size of the dishes here! They point to ramen on one side (in two sizes and both at reasonable prices!) and small plates/apps on the other side. I ordered their seasonal house Old Fashioned and my husband got a Sapporo because when in Japan… And also they didn’t have any beer that looked much better. My Old Fashioned claimed to include fig (admittedly this was like…80% of the reason I ordered it), but I didn’t get it. Dat star anise though. We had a hard time deciding on an appetizer but we eventually also ordered the daily special pork belly and watermelon.

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The dominant flavor was sriracha, which was delicious even if it felt slightly lazy. I mean, I can slather my own food with hot sauce, thank you! But the pork belly was crispy outside, tender inside, and the watermelon made an interesting and unexpectedly good pairing, cutting the fat and the spice with juicy, sweet goodness. It was a good sharing size too.

For the ramen, we both chose the small size, hoping to minimize the chances of sloshy-belly on our walk home. We also tried to order things as different as we could. I got the spicy shoyu broth and added woodear mushrooms and the nitamago egg. The hubs got the lighter shio broth with just a nitamago. He wanted to get the “spice bomb” that Haikan offers, but opted against it so that we could taste a wide difference between the two soups.

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Service was fast and the small bowl was definitely the right size. No oogly-boogly feeling for us! It’s nice that Haikan offers this. On the other hand, we were both a little disappointed by the small amount of pork in our bowls; just a single thin strip of pork shoulder and some sad crumbs of ground meat as far as we could tell. Compared with Toki Underground or Daikaya whose soups are packed full of shredded meat, this felt sparse. The shio broth was light, slightly fishy, and very gingery. The shoyu broth was richer and had a light spice. I’m glad I got the mushrooms too because they didn’t skimp on these and they added a nice texture. The noodles were abundant and cooked to a perfect al dente. The seasoned egg was soooooo good. Why can’t I make eggs like this? Why can’t I ever even peel my soft-boiled eggs correctly? At any rate, here you get the whole egg, gooey jelly middle and all.

Best of all, we left feeling un-sloshy and without a huge dent in the wallet.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: A variety of small plates and different ramen sizes, as well as the ability to make reservations, make Haikan a winner over other local ramen joints. I think Daikaya is better, I think Toki is more interesting, but at least at Haikan I don’t have to wait for hours in the cold, sadly spying on the people lucky enough to be enjoying their hot soup, like the little match girl. I will happily return here.

BKK Cookshop

Ever since Beau Thai grew up, decided it was too good for us plebes in Bloomingdale, and moved across town to its fancy new digs, they’ve left us their little redheaded half-brother, BKK Cookshop, to help absorb the shock and sadness of their sudden departure. That was like…three years ago. I’m a little bitter.

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So tonight was my first real time there, and it was also luckily a beautiful night to sit on their patio! Just by looking at their menu, you can tell that BKK Cookshop isn’t here to upstage your neighborhood Thai place, which is good because I am unusually attached to my personal neighborhood Thai place and I will fight you if you try to insinuate that your place is better (Aroi shout out!) BKK is a different beast, all interesting noodles, simple but tasty cocktails, and dim sum-like appetizers. Speaking of simple but tasty cocktails, here’s my tart, limey, strong Bangkok Mule!

There was significant negotiation involved in choosing one appetizer because they all looked so good. We finally settled on the steamed buns because we were able to choose three different flavors: spicy pork, sweet black bean, and panang chicken. Steamed buns are so nostalgic for me, probably because I haven’t had great ones since I left my home state of California more than ten years ago and they always remind me of dim sum brunch in San Francisco. The black bean ones were just like those ones, with a rich but not cloying sweetness. The pork was soft, well spiced but not spicy, and the panang was both meaty and saucy, the clear winner.

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Then came the entrees: I had the sukiyaki bowl and husband ordered the coconut curry bowl and a side of son-in-law eggs. The eggs were slightly overcooked and the sauce was syrupy and not super tamarind-y, but it was definitely interesting. The bowls were both so different in their own ways from our usual Thai fare that it’s hard to even compare them. I liked the rich herbaceousness of the Sukiyaki broth and the abundant veggies, especially the Chinese broccoli, which lent its subtle bitterness to counter the salinity of the broth.  The coconut curry was good too, made with a yellow curry that doesn’t make it into my husband’s usual Thai rotation of panang and more panang. The only issue with it was the bone-in chicken that populated his soup for the second week in a row. This guy just cannot catch a break! The good news is that it was very fall-apart-y, and we all know that dark meat is the superior meat. But come on, guys. Throw him a bone (heeeeee!) and just strip the chicken before you put it in a soup. This is my basic thought when it comes to shellfish too; if I’m paying you for my food, you had better be doing all the work.

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Sadly, all of our dishes were originally served gringo-style and although I was happy to not be wrestling with these noodles armed only with chopsticks, we were both much happier after we requested the spice tray and gave our soups some proper nasal-drip-inducing seasoning. No matter how many times I pushed my bowl of leftover liquid away, I couldn’t stop eating the broth. Now I have sloshy-belly.

Price: $25 per person.

Bottom line: BKK Cookshop is not a replacement for your favorite Thai joint. Instead, you will find a place for it in your heart that you never knew existed. Like the bastard brother of fancy-pants Beau Thai, this place doesn’t get the attention or recognition it deserves. Next time you need some hot and tasty soup, show some love to BKK.