Lunch in 30: Thai Square
Miner Street eatery loses points for making lunch a 50-minute experience but wins some for a crowd of loyal customers.
You'll find Thai Square in downtown Des Plaines, sandwiched between the Metra station on one side and the Metropolitan Square shopping center on the other.
This Miner Street restaurant stays bustling at lunch time. When I stopped in at 12:30 p.m. all the tables were full and there was already someone ahead of me waiting for the next free one.
The small but persistent line for lunch is a testament to the restaurant's popularity. This is especially true when you realize the entire front end of the restaurant is a one woman show. She greets you at the door, takes you to your table, brings your food, rings up your order and buses the table when you leave. She may be the hardest working woman in Des Plaines.
When you walk in, you'll find the small space divided into two sections: one side with five tables and the other with three. Thirty people would leave the place utterly packed. There was 16 of us when I stopped in, giving it a bustling but uncrowded feel. Most of the tables for four were fully occupied with business people having lunch. The fact that I couldn't clearly hear anyone else's conversation is a testament to the restaurant's well chosen sound tiles.
I liked the strong, simple lines of the decor. Thai Square has wood floors, wood trim along the bottom half of the walls with a combination of Thai wood sculptures and artistic photographs of orchids above.
The menu features 11 lunch specials for $6.95, all available with rice and a spring roll. Any of the entrees can be made with chicken, pork or tofu. You can upgrade to beef for a surcharge.
I was highly tempted by the house specialty, "Evil Jungle Curry," but at $10.95 that seemed a little excessive for lunch. Instead, I tried the cashew chicken for $8.95 with a side order of $4.95 spring rolls.
The spring rolls caught me by surprise. I expected a concoction made from cellophane noodles and assorted vegetables wrapped in slick, translucent rice paper. Instead, I was brought what looked like an innovative tray of sushi. The exterior was uncooked eggroll skins wrapped around a soft square of tofu, a long wedge of cucumber and, actual, rice. It was cut into 8 pieces and drizzled with what tasted of thickened and sweetened soy sauce. Honestly, I think these would have been better deep fried than served cold.
The cashew chicken came fresh and hot from a wok. The very generous portion contained thick slices of chicken breast, carrots carefully cut into star shapes, and a mix of onions and bell peppers. A few chunks of pineapple provided a sweet contrast to the savory flavors. The soy-based sauce was flavorful without being too salty. The vast majority of menu items can be made with tofu or served with no meat or meat substitutes at all. While I certainly enjoyed the chicken in mine, there were more than enough vegetables and rice to make a filling meal. This seems like a great place to take picky vegetarians.
Everything I tried was good, but, sadly, not great. I wanted to like the restaurant more. I have a sweet spot for hole-in-the-wall restaurants, especially those run by people who obviously make food their lives.
Thai Square didn't commit any massive faux pas, but the overall experience felt sloppily adequate. At half the price I'd be fine with that, but when I'm spending $20 on lunch I expect a little more. I was never asked how hot I'd like my curry. Not a crime, but I might have felt more kindly toward it with a little more spice. My drink went unfilled for my entire visit, which was entirely too long. Instead of Lunch in 30, this was Lunch in 50. Anyone with a tight or unforgiving lunch schedule could get into serious trouble here.
That said, Thia Square obviously has a loyal lunchtime clientèle. While the line never extended out the door, none of the tables stayed empty for any longer than it took the hostess to clear the last guest's plates. You can order takeout, but everyone I saw come in the door waited to sit at a table.
In addition to being too slow for an average lunch crowd, any items not on the streamlined lunch special menu were overpriced. I paid $8.98 for the cashew chicken, $4.98 for the spring rolls and $1.50 for the iced tea. With tax, that was $17.02 for lunch plus a $2 tip. While the food was indeed filling, $19.02 is excessively expensive for a slow lunch.
ADDRESS: 14.76 Miner St., Des Plaines, IL
PRICE: $$ ($8.95 average entrée)
DÉCOR: 85 (contemporary wood)
HOURS: 11:30 am - 9:00 pm Monday-Saturday, 4:00 pm - 9:00 pm Sunday
FOOD: 75 (adequate food but service too slow for a reasonable business lunch)