The quality of the food has never been a question for Jay Lin, who is soon opening a new Thai restaurant in a spot he’s been familiar with for six years. He’s gutted the interiors inside the former Opart Thai House at the corner of Chicago and Noble. Among the changes: the bar has moved to the east room beneath a severely underutilized skylight and the host’s counter is now closer to the entrance.
When crews finish work, hopefully by the end of September, Lin will unveil the new restaurant: Noble Thai. While he’s reinventing the space, many of the flavors will remain the same. He’s hired Roongnapha Prakobkit (known as P’Mam) and she brings 20 years of experience as chef at both Opart West Town and South Loop. Lin and Prakobkit will streamline Opart’s old menu. But there will be specials and additions; Lin wants a few street food options including khao man gai, which is kind of a Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice. Lin says he hasn’t fallen in love with a version served in Chicago and hopes Noble Thai’s take fills that void. Another idea is to apply Tiger Cry marinade with fancier cuts of beef and serve Thai fried chicken.
For the first time, Lin will also have a liquor license for the space.
“It’s all the stuff I want to eat and drink,” Lin says.
But the biggest change for Lin is the space. Immigrant-owned restaurants, especially family-run operations, are trying to shed stereotypes, but it’s a difficult line to toe. Just west of Noble Thai, the owners of 47-year-old and family-owned Mexican restaurant Tecalitlan were unfairly criticized by locals when a landlord dispute forced them to move. They ended up relocating to Lincoln Park at the NEW CITY development inside a newer space with more reasonable lease terms. Still, the authenticity police circled the scene, claiming Tecalitlan was throwing away its credibility by moving from West Town to a shinier space in a more tony part of town. It’s important to report that the tacos and enchiladas still taste the same at the new location.
That perception is another reason why Lin needed to retain his chef. He also vows to keep prices affordable — a whole fish could be the priciest item at $20. Thai restaurants, along with Chinese and Indian, often rely on large takeout business, which made them uniquely able to thrive during a pandemic that restricted on-premise dining. Takeout-reliant restaurants are nice, but it handcuffs operators without on-premise alcohol sales as a large revenue maker. That’s why changes are needed. For example, Vajra, the South Asian restaurant that’s also on Chicago Avenue, has proved that a thoughtful alcoholic beverage program pairs tremendously well with tandoor-made fare.
Lin also leaned on a prominent Chicago restaurant figure for advise. Back in September 2019, Lin met Boka Restaurant Group co-founder Kevin Boehm at a restaurant panel organized by Eater Chicago. Boehm advised Lin to invest more in design as a way to make his restaurant stick out and connected Lin with BlocHaus, a firm that’s designed restaurants like Sparrow Coffee in Naperville and the Kennison in Lincoln Park. BlocHaus is designing Noble Thai and Lin’s other restaurant, Tensuke Market in suburban Elk Grove Village.
Lin was an investor in Opart when it opened in 2015 in West Town, an offshoot of the original location in Lincoln Square. A falling out with the restaurant’s founder led to a split, with Mary Punmit taking the brand a few blocks west to Chicago and Ashland where she operates a new location of Opart.
Noble Thai’s space formerly housed Bow & Stern Oyster Bar, and Lin says the space’s layout never made sense to him. He’s hoping the new changes will entice diners to come by and have a dinner and a drink. He’s got high expectations. Stay tuned for updates.
Noble Thai, 1371 W. Chicago Avenue, planned to open by the end of September.