A pair of Bangkok natives longed for a taste of home in downtown Chicago, a swath of the city where dining options have dwindled due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent exodus of office workers in the area. Patt Tongphong and chef Tom Deethian have solved their problem with Keadkao Express, a quick-serve stall that debuted this month inside the Urbanspace Washington food hall in the Loop.
Keadkao emphasizes rich and herbaceous southern Thai cuisine. Selections include green curry chicken, stir-fried vegetables, and garlicky Hadyai fried chicken (also spelled “hat yai,” after the city where it originated). Specials will include massamun curry with beef, tom yum soup with jumbo shrimp, and Deethian’s take on pad Thai, which sold out on opening day.
For the owners, it seems they’ve arrived in Chicago at a time where locals are embracing northern Thai food and other regions compared to the default that southern Thai cuisine represented for years when it was introduced decades ago to the city. Tongphong and Deethian met as interns and graduate students at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Both felt that fast, tasty midday options are limited for workers with short lunch breaks — especially when it came to regional Thai selections. “When I first tried Thai food over here, I thought, ‘why hasn’t anyone brought a southern Thai style here?,” Tongphong says. “It’s so rich in flavor with lots of herbs in the food. I talked to Tom — this could be our unique point of view.”
Though Keadkao Express is the pair’s first venture, they’re not novices to the world of hospitality. Tongphong hails from a family of restaurant owners and has brought recipes from Pattalung, their 31-year-old restaurant, to Chicago; Deethian supported himself for five years as a restaurant cook in Australia while also attending school. It was a transformative experience, thanks in large part to a head chef took Deethian under his wing, he says.
Tongphong and Deethian have big dreams for their new business, hoping to leverage a combination of their degrees in business, modern technology, and traditional recipes into an empire of 100 locations across the U.S. “We want to bring the energy of a younger generation,” Deethian says. “We don’t want to just take money from customers. We want to share the culture and make sure everyone is happy when they come and eat my food.”
The pair are also pleased with the energetic atmosphere at Urbanspace Washington, the first Chicago outpost from the New York-based food hall chain. Urbanspace is also poised to unveil its long-awaited follow-up inside Willis Tower, which operators had hoped to open in late spring. Supply chain issues have disrupted that timeline, according to a rep, but the hall is scheduled to launch at some point in 2022. As for the name, Deethian and Tongphong combined their mothers’ names to create their branding — Keadkao is a made-up term.
Keadkao Express, 15 W. Washington Street inside Urbanspace Chicago; Open 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 7 am. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.