At first the bright green and purple walls inside Lovely Thai seem overwhelming, but as you settle back into your well-worn booth or chair, the colors and the soft music flow into a certain relaxation and comfort. And you'll need it -- there's a lot to look at once seated. Thailand travel guides sit on a central table and the menu is extensive. I flipped to the next page of my seemingly endless menu as yet another Elton John cover came through the speakers. The entire time we were there, faux-Elton was our soundtrack.
Music preferences aside, Lovely Thai, 1144 E. Washington St., just across from the College of Lake County, is the destination in Grayslake for authentic, delicious Thai cuisine. I'm not afraid to say it -- this place cooks up the best Thai food I've eaten. Ever. And there's a reason for that. The owners frequently return to Thailand, and most of the staff is Thai. Cultural differences and a language barrier are not necessarily a benefit for the restaurant, so keep that in mind if the waitstaff sometimes seems abrupt. It's not purposeful.
Lovely Thai1144 E. Washington St., Grayslake, (847) 231-6442, lovelythaimenu.com
Cuisine: Authentic Thai
Setting: Vibrant, casual and quiet
Entrees: $8 to $16
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday
Every dish on the menu, whether it's soup, salad, noodles, fried rice, hot pot, curry or a standard Thai entree, comes with a choice of meat, seafood or tofu. If coconut isn't high on your list, check the menu carefully before ordering; coconut milk is a star player in the cuisine here. A limited beverage menu offers house red and white wines, as well as standard beers and two Thai imports. You can also get tea or Thai coffee.
The appetizer selection crosses borders, covering just about every Asian appetizer imaginable, including some more unique options like fried banana and sweet potatoes, golden balls (shrimp and pork, marinated then wrapped in egg noodles and fried), and mussels in a clay pot with Thai spices. We ordered the chicken pot stickers. The menu gives an option of fried or steamed, and make sure you specify which you'd like. The standard dish is fried. Pot stickers have a tendency to be greasy; these were anything but. They were perfectly crisp and the filling was the ideal texture. Make sure to try the homemade garlicky soy sauce accompanying the dish.
I followed the appetizer with a cup of jasmine rice soup with chicken and green onion. Our dinners arrived shortly after, and it's just as well -- the soup was too hot to eat until about the time we ordered dessert. I ended up only having a few bites. The green onion was readily apparent, but otherwise the soup felt stale.
For dinner, I ordered the chicken pad thai. The dish comes standard pretty much everywhere with crushed peanuts, sprouts, egg, cabbage and carrots to mix in. But the real standout for Lovely Thai's version was the homemade peanut sauce. It was sweet and robust. The peanut flavor wasn't overly strong and rounded out the meal's profile well. Everything was cooked perfectly, from the rice noodles to the chicken to even the egg on top.
My husband's panang curry with barbecue pork was classified as medium spicy and was served with rice, peanut sauce with panang chili paste and bell peppers. The sauce was thick and rich, and more than just medium spicy. Rice helps calm the heat, so a mixture of everything in each bite opens up the flavors in the dish to a new level. Roti bread accompanied the entree.
I've never had roti bread, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. It was steaming when we pulled it out of the foil packet and looked elastic when my husband ripped it apart. The smell and appearance had me expecting a doughy Pugliese-type bread, but the taste and texture were strange -- it was almost like a croissant dough crossbred with a corn tortilla. I can't honestly say I enjoyed it that much, but it served nicely as a vehicle for extra curry sauce.
For dessert, we ordered the Thai custard. Crème brulee and I have a long and loving history, so I had high hopes for this. I was not disappointed. The custard was flan-like in texture, but not as creamy, and it was accented with a nutty cinnamon taste. It came in two layers. I couldn't taste a difference between the two. Still, it was heavenly and the best way to end our meal. According to the menu, it's made with taro root, although you'll never notice any taro flavor.
One of the greatest things about Lovely Thai is the waitstaff. They seem to have service perfectly timed. Seating is immediate, glasses are hardly ever dry, cleaned plates are rarely left on the table -- they don't bug you, but they aren't slow either. The restaurant is the perfect blend of flavor and class, settled into a casual, relaxing atmosphere.
• Restaurant reviews are based on one anonymous visit. The Daily Herald does not publish reviews of restaurants it cannot recommend.