When NaKorn opened a year ago, it had a very specific mission. Owners Sam Rattanopas and Mina Sudsaard wanted to bring authentic Thai food to Evanston—the kind of food they remembered from their childhoods in Thailand—and to clear up a few misconceptions. Thai food can be spicy, but it doesn’t have to be. They also left pad thai off of the menu so that people would have to try something else. It was a great decision. Our evening at NaKorn was like a tour of exotic comfort food we never knew existed and everything we tasted was absolutely scrumptious.
Everything on the Bites menu is designed as a series of bite-sized treats. We tried quite a few and were glad we did because of the sheer breadth of delectable flavors available.
The Taro Chicken Bite is the starter for anyone who was thrown by the exclusion of pad thai from the menu. It starts with a cut of chicken that’s been marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and then flash fried for peak succulence. It’s covered in chopped peanuts in a chili-peanut gastrique, which delivers all of the flavors that make pad thai such a hit.
On the other end of the palate spectrum, the Watermelon Bite took us by surprise. It’s a perfectly carved cylinder of watermelon topped with a sprinkling of salmon powder and crispy shallots. The shallots hit the tongue first, sharp and savory, before your mouth fills with the sweetness of fresh, juicy watermelon. A subtle salmon flavor moves in and combines with a sprig of cilantro for a really crisp finish. It’s very tasty and unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. As they say on the menu, it’s a unique, aristocratic Thai dish served at the inauguration of the Emerald Buddha temple in 1808 by King Rama the first. So… good company.
The Crab Cake Bite is one of their most popular starters and it’s so uniquely different than any other version of the dish. The base is basically a herbaceous sausage roll made from a mixture of crab meat, pork, taro, and water chestnuts wrapped in crispy soy paper that gives it a spring roll vibe. It’s topped with a tangle of beet-infused lotus root, plum, spring greens, house-made plum gastrique, and a piece of fresh crab meat. The roll creates a heavy, comforting base for the bite that resolves in the fresh flavors of greens and crab.
One of the tenets of NaKorn was to make available Thai foods that they couldn’t find anywhere around Evanston. The Coriander Shredded Beef Brisket is a dish that Rattanopas remembers fondly, ordered and passed through the windows of a train at the beginning of trips. The beef is so crunchy against the soft chew of sticky rice. Coriander drizzle across the plate and in the beef sets the tone and is perfectly offset with a single sprig of cilantro on top.
One of our highlights of the night came from the Salads section of the menu. The Kale and Tofu is the kind of dish we talked about for days afterward. Especially surprising considering that one of us doesn’t typically do tofu. The entire dish hinges on a pool of coconut-tamarind curry sauce coating the plate. A pad of tofu and a handful of kale are both partially submerged in the sauce. The way each absorbs and responds to the slightly spicy, peanut-like flavor is absolutely mouthwatering.
Presentation is paramount at NaKorn, and every dish that emerges from the kitchen is perfectly plated. The Braised Pork Shank is served bone-in standing on end in the center of the plate surrounded by decadent hoisin-like sauce. The slow-cooked meat falls easily off the bone; it’s incredibly tender. Underneath the shank is a tangle of sautéed Swiss chard and pickled mustard greens, adding earthy and tart flavor elements to balance out some of the sweetness of the sauce. A small bowl of chili-ginger vinaigrette accompanies the meat for those who would like to add a hint of heat and a touch of lime.
There aren’t many dessert offerings, but there certainly doesn’t need to be as long as the Fresh Mango and Coconut-Sweet Rice exists. Cubes of fresh cut mango are dotted with a delicate mango cream sauce. The rice is sweet and satisfying with a salted caramel presence. The push and pull of warm rice and cool mango is offset by the chill of vanilla bean ice cream and a wafer curl adds a topnote of salt and smoke. It’s a wonderful way to signal the end of a meal.
All of these culinary delights are served up in the most charming environs designed by Sudsaard and Rattanopas. From a sprawling central light fixture made from Edison bulbs perched in wicker bird cages to a kitchen window framed in shutters to Sudsaards’s hand-drawn mural of a Thai street scene in copper Sharpie covering an entire wall, every detail pulls you into a very personal, very curated, intimate frame of mind. It feels like a place designed to integrate affection, tremendous skill, and nods to tradition, just like their exceptional menu.
NaKorn is located at 1622 Orrington Avenue in Evanston, 847-733-8424, nakornkitchen.com.