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Northwest Side Restaurant Review: Dharma Garden Thai Cuisine

By Chuck Sudo in News on Mar 8, 2007 7:00PM

2007_03_dharma_rolls.jpgDharma Garden Thai Cuisine is a restaurant full of contradictions. And we mean that in a good way. One side of this Albany Park eatery is flanked by a long bar, although the restaurant is BYOB. Dharma prides itself on using healthful ingredients and cooking processes — the menu informed us “dharma ragsar” means “natural healing” in Thai — but 10 out of the 20 apps are deep fried. To be fair, a majority of the other dishes could go in the good-for-you category, especially since the restaurant eschews meat. Seafood, tofu and imitation meats are the only protein options, and we appreciate Dharma’s lack of MSG. Then there’s the homey-in-a-grandma-way atmosphere: lace curtains, faux brick, bamboo chairs, and kitschy holiday decorations coupled with the erotic karaoke videos playing on the small flat-screen TVs (our server told us that the restaurant packs ‘em in for the after-hours sing-a-longs). Although we’re not sure what ’ol Blue Eyes would have to say about “My Way” accompanied by a blond babe frolicking in a bubble bath. On second thought, he’d probably like it.

Dharma features 10 different soups, with more than half available in both small and large portions. The hot and sour soup ($7.95 for two) includes white mushrooms, onions, tomatoes, carrots, baby bok choy, baby corn and lemon grass. Sounds innocent enough, but don’t be fooled, this flavorful soup has some kick to it. Be warned: Those aren’t water chestnuts but big slivers of fresh ginger. For appetizers we chose two from the non-deep fried options, Thai spring rolls ($3.95) and shrimp shu mai dumplings ($4.95). The spring rolls (pictured, above) were full of crunchy fresh vegetables — bean sprouts, cucumber and carrots — with the house-made tamarind sauce adding a nice sour balance. The crunchy garlic on top of the shu mai isn’t for the faint of heart, but that’s their loss.

2007_03_dharma4.jpgChoosing an entrée is no easy feat at Dharma Garden, with more than 70 to choose from. We kept things simple with the pad lard nar ($7.49 with tofu or imitation meat). The pan-fried noodles come with stir-fried broccoli, collard greens, carrots, mushrooms, baby bok choy and baby corn, and are topped with a thick soy-bean sauce that has just enough sweetness to it. We opted for the imitation “chicken” which didn’t really taste like chicken, but we didn’t mind. (Note to self: Next visit try the passionate curry, which sounds like a nice match for the steamy karaoke videos.) Dharma offers some unusual dessert offerings, including sticky rice in banana leaf, rice cookies made with coconut milk and black sesame seeds, and pumpkin Thai custard, but the large portions make it difficult to save room. In this era of cookie-cutter restaurants, a little, or, in this case, a lot, of quirkiness goes a long way. But Dharma has the good eats and friendly service to make it more than just a conversation piece.

Dharma Garden is located at 3109 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-588-9160. Open Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; closed Monday.

Thanks, Lisa!