The word “talard” means “market” in Thai. There are three talards in Chicago dedicated to Thai food, but only one Talard Thai Asian Market, the newest and the largest. It opened two years ago in Edgewater in order to provide home cooks with hard-to-find ingredients and Thai expats with snacks they may be missing from home.
But walk past the bins of holy basil and Thai eggplant, the shelves full of jars of curry paste and green curry flavored potato chips, and the freezer compartments stuffed with dumplings and fish balls, and find Talard’s greatest treasure: its hot food bar.
Staffed by three Thai cooks, each from a different region of Thailand, the bar serves roughly 20 dishes every day. Between eight and ten appear daily, and six to ten more show up in a semiregular rotation: grilled skewers, for instance, are only available on weekends.
One of the standout dishes is papaya salad, which is offered every day and is also available in a mix-at-home version in the grab-and-go section. It’s prepared by cook Annie Thumwong, who will only say, through a translator, that she comes from northeast Thailand. Her salad combines papaya, dried shrimp, tomatoes, limes, and peanuts, and it’s dressed with a special tamarind sauce to make it an addictive mixture of sweet, sour, and salty.
On any given day, pork belly will also make several appearances at the hot bar. In its most popular form, it’s coated in batter and fried so that it’s crisp on the outside, but still juicy on the inside. But it also shows up in curries and stir fries. The southern dishes have a peppery kick, while preparations from the north have more of an herbal flavor.
The hot food bar is cash only. All the meals are served with a side of sticky rice. For dessert, the prepared foods counter sells look choop, mung beans that have been pulped and molded into fruit shapes. Customers can take their food to go or eat at one of the two folding tables in the back of the store.
When Talard’s founders, Supasin “Pete” Ratchadapronvanich and Simon Atapan, took over the former Golden Pacific Market in 2019, they envisioned a Thai supermarket that offered both produce that would allow cooks to prepare dishes properly — as Mike Sula noted in the Reader, holy basil does not taste like Italian basil — and the junk food they used to buy from the 7-Eleven when they were growing up in Bangkok. They acquired two other business partners, Kittigorn Lirtpanaruk, who also owns Taste of Thai Town and Arun’s (the pioneering fine dining restaurant in Irving Park that’s been open since 1985), and Sutthamas Tetiwat, owner of Bangkok Video in Uptown.
Before the store opened, Ratchadapronvanich and Atapan made deals with with distributors in Thailand, New York, and Los Angeles to acquire products that weren’t yet available in Chicago, such as Mama instant noodles, which have a cult following both in Thailand and the Thai diaspora.
Chicago’s Thai population in 2019 was 8,000 people, according to the Pew Research Center, which placed it fourth among American cities. (Los Angeles has the largest Thai population in the U.S. with 33,000.) Officials in the local Thai community told WBEZ in 2020 that there were approximately 300 Thai restaurants in the metropolitan area, or one for every 33 Thais. They, and other prominent members of the Thai food community like chef Arun Sampathavivat of Arun’s, attributed this to a cultural love of cooking and a spirit of entrepreneurship. But this didn’t translate into grocery stores: while Thai food and ingredients can be found in pan-Asian supermarkets, before Talard opened, there were only two markets devoted exclusively to Thais, PNA in Lincoln Square and the Thai Food Corporation in Uptown.
Like any good supermarket, Talard also stocks cooking equipment and Thai cleaning and personal hygiene products. It’s as close to Bangkok as anyone can get in Chicago.
Talard Thai Asian Market, 5353 N. Broadway, Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.