“Chim: [to] taste; savour; savor”
Hurtling south down Lake Avenue, it’s hard to miss the large sign reading “Thai street food” printed in bold block letters, posted over the café, tucked in a small shopping center on the southeast corner of Union Street.
The sign directs the inclined to Chim! Thai Street Food. Take a quick, close look at the menu and guests will note a variety of dishes not commonly found at a handful of excellent Thai restaurants in town. At least now you know how to get here! A return trip will be well rewarded.
Now, I’m at the front entrance of Chim! which is blocked by a desk where I peruse the menu.
A couple approaches from the parking lot and I wave them ahead of me as I weigh my options. In the latest twist of lockdown, Chim! has a half dozen socially distanced tables along the sidewalk of the mini mall, where guests can immediately enjoy their food.
After consulting with cheery Patty Chum, who is manning the desk today, I place my order.
I quickly grab a seat at a table in safe conversational proximity to the couple ordering ahead of me. Kelsey Beck, 32, from Temple City is here for the third time and always orders the same thing—pad se ew ($10.95), an old standard on any Thai menu.
“It’s one of the best!” she said. “I always love it when I come here. They’re so nice.” Beck was introduced to Chim! by her companion, who joins us. Jordan Mitchell-Love, 33, of Pasadena is a regular’s regular.
“It reminds me of a southeast Asian street market” Jordan says.
The former host of YouTube Travel show “The Vagabond Tales,” Mitchell-Love’s worldly experience is well-documented. “When people are visiting, this is the place I take them. I feel very relaxed when I come here.” Yellow curry ($10.95) is today’s order for him and both friends have Thai iced tea ($4.50) and mango sticky rice ($9.95).
Where’s the street food? The Chim! street platter ($16.95) is a combo of papaya salad and gai yang chicken, marinated, grilled and served with sticky rice. It hits all the right spicy, sweet and sour notes and the salad is bright and refreshing.
In my order, I’ve included an obligatory ration of pad Thai ($11.95). Of course, it’s also one of the usual suspects on all Thai menus, too. I’ve had pad Thai all over town. I have a deep weakness for the dish. Inevitably, I succumb to its charms regardless of the chef. However, there are always distinctions and nuances that can define the sensibility and approach of whomever is tossing the noodles at the stoves. In this case, that person would be Chef Chatdaow Wattanaprateep. Her version is distinctly bold with tamarind and thoroughly satisfying.
However, I need more guidance to the real “street” stuff and that comes by phone with co-owner, Jane Tansurat. Co-owned and operated with her husband Peter, also a chef, Chim! opened in late 2015.
“We were both born in Bangkok (but) we grew up in Southern California.” The two met in Pasadena at the now-closed Shogun restaurant, where Peter was a chef. They ran a small café together in Upland before moving to Thailand in 2013.
Peter’s brother was attending college at Burapha University in the Thai coastal beach town of Bang Saen and the two Thai-born culinary adventurers from America opened an American-style brunch café across from the campus. On weekend evenings, the expansive Nong Man night market would materialize in the street in front of their restaurant.
“That’s where the good stuff was,” she said. “We studied from the whole market.” Upon returning to SoCal, they quizzed other Thai friends: “What’s the Thai food that you want to see that you can’t find here?”
So, where does the boss direct us on her menu? First, the “signature” dish: Chim! gai zapp ($10.95) found under “rice dishes.” This spicy dish is a tangle of crispy chicken, cilantro, red onion, scallions, basil and roasted rice powder all tossed with chili-lime juice. The chicken can be swapped for tofu or shrimp ($12.95). “Even Thai people when they come, that’s the dish they go for.” Any questions?
Also, look for the monthly specials. Every month, the menu rotates new “street” dishes into the set menu. At the moment, tod mun pla fried fish cakes ($4.50) and curry puff empanadas ($6.95) on the appetizer list and yum wai wai, a cold and spicy ramen salad ($10.95), are current authentic “street” specials at Chim! that will not be found on other local menus.
On the regular menu, kee maow chow mein ($12.95) began as a monthly special and proved so popular it earned a permanent spot on the menu. A popular favorite, it features ground chicken, shrimp, Thai sweet basil, green beans, bell peppers, and ramen noodles in a spicy garlic chili sauce. Again, it’s a dish unique to Chim!
Tansurat’s previous finance background has helped in negotiating the uncertainties of lockdown. The restaurant stayed open from the beginning of the “safer-at-home” mandate in March and she has not laid off staff. A modest PPP loan helped, but she immediately lost an estimated 90% of her lunch business, when the office buildings across Lake effectively closed.
“It hit us really hard.” Ultimately, she credits her hard-working and loyal staff for getting Chim! through the last five months. Besides Patty Chum and Chef Chatdaow, who is a cousin, the staff includes Jane’s affable young nephew, Drake Wongposarat.
Recently, Chim! was closed Monday and Tuesday when Jane, Peter and the rest of the staff retreated for two nights to Big Bear for “a vacation.” Patty confided to me that they stayed up all night and Jane confirms there were “lots of drinking games.” It sounds like a well-earned respite for the creators and curators of some of the most unusual and deliciously authentic Thai street food. Their refreshment is ours as well. To echo Tansurat, come to Chim! Thai Street Food for “the good stuff”!