Peach Buzz: Panang Noodle and Rice

For ages now I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about some of my favorite restaurants, shops, service providers, and other “Allison’s Guide to Chicago”-type raves and recommendations here on Queen of Peaches. And when I recently found out one of my standby spots for lunch will soon be closing, I knew I needed to take the opportunity to memorialize it — and figured I might as well kick off this new semi-regular feature while I’m at it.

So, welcome to Peach Buzz!

Peach Buzz!

And farewell to Panang Noodle and Rice on Chicago Avenue.

panang storefrontIt’s strange now to imagine the first two long, sad decades of my life when I never ate Thai food, or even knew what it was.

I mistakenly thought I didn’t like it the first few times I had it while studying abroad as an undergraduate in London in the summer of 2000. I was overwhelmed by my first glimpse at a menu full of Thai items, so my suave and sophisticated American co-intern at the Institute of Ideas advised me to try the pad thai. Something about the combination of the bland noodles and weird sweetness added by the grated peanuts just didn’t appeal to me (and honestly it still doesn’t). Summarily writing off the whole of Thai cuisine based on one dish, I devoted myself for the rest of my stay in London to eating at every hole-in-the-wall Indian place I could find instead.

“Seattle Sunset” by Howard Ignatius

It wasn’t for another year and a half, during my brief sojourn in Seattle, where there were seemingly three amazing Thai places on every block, that I learned I actually love Thai food, after becoming obsessed with lad nar. Fat, slurpy rice noodles drowned in salty, garlicy sauce, studded with bitter, crunchy broccoli — it was ideal comfort food, hangover food, “I misjudged my hunger threshold and my blood sugar is plummeting so I need to eat NOW” food. The palate of my early 20s was suddenly transformed.

One year after that revelatory experience, when I moved to Chicago and finally started working my first big-girl job, I was delighted to discover a fantastic Thai place just a short walk down the street from my office.

Since that autumn of 2002, I’ve probably eaten at Panang an average of once a week. We’re talking several hundreds of meals there, people. Many of these have been solo lunches, of course, spent shoveling noodles into my mouth distractedly while reading a book, writing in my journal, scrolling through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and an assortment of bookmarked essays and blog posts on my iPhone, and otherwise decompressing from my job for an hour in the middle of the day.

But there have also been a fair number of birthday lunches with coworkers, awkward on-the-clock meals with vendors courting my business, “let’s do lunch!” lunches with friends who unexpectedly happened to be in the neighborhood during the work week, and even the odd dinner after work squeezed in before a film screening or theatrical performance or concert. It became a standby, an old reliable, quite simply part of the fabric of what I think of as my regular life here in Chicago.

panang interior february 2011

And that’s the crux of it. Though their lad nar still lives up to all my highly romanticized memories of my first bite of the dish in Seattle, and every other item on the menu that I’ve ever eaten there has been fresh and tasty (and never overly greasy), it remains the sweet simplicity of the restaurant’s status as meeting place, extension lunchroom, neutral territory, and common ground that elevates it above just about any other Thai place I can think of.

So much of this vibe is due to the unfailingly swift and pleasant service, which has always succeeded in hitting that elusive sweet spot between friendly recognition and letting you go on about your business. Dozens of different servers who have come and gone over the years learned my standby order(s) (“rama tofu? Panang noodle? Garlic tofu noodle? Pad see eiw? Lad nar tofu?”) and I very often had hot lunch sitting in front of me within five minutes of my arrival. And this is assuredly not just my experience — virtually everyone I currently work with or indeed have ever worked with would likely report much the same. And it’s not just us — the restaurant is always packed with other neighborhood employees and students from nearby Moody Bible Institute. They do brisk takeout business as well.

There are other Thai restaurants in Chicago of which I’m exceedingly fond, and hopefully I’ll get around to writing about some of them too. But, not to be overdramatic, Panang will truly leave a hole in my heart and in my personal, internal map of Chicago if it does close as promised in the next few weeks. A large part of the absence will of course be the affordable, reliably tasty food and kind employees. But it will also be swallowing up over a decade’s worth of the kind of mundane memories that never seem noteworthy until they’re threatened with extinction.

When I say goodbye to Panang, I also say goodbye to early-20s Allison just learning to navigate the city, mid-20s Allison thrilled with her independence, late-20s Allison feeling her way to greater and greater responsibility at her job, early-30s Allison pushing the boundaries of what she expects out of her own life, and now mid-30s Allison making refinements to the old and starting to dream about what she can possibly make happen for herself next. When Panang closes its doors, in many ways it also closes them on personal growth, professional growth, trauma, triumph, and indeed even the kind of productive boredom that resets one’s internal compass in seldom appreciated ways.

So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Panang, for providing a space for me and countless other River North denizens to nourish ourselves ourselves on a regular basis, in both body and soul.

UPDATE: October 15, 2014 was their last day of operation. This is the sign that was posted in the window.

panang closing notice

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