Don't Call the Vibrant Dishes at Arun's Unicorn Food

Chef Arun Sampanthavivat of the recently reopened Arun's in Chicago relies on blossoms, spices and more to make his playfully colorful dishes.

Arun's Thai Restaurant
Photo: Isabelli Media Relations (IMR)

First, there was the rainbow bagel craze. Then, it morphed into the—somehow even more color-packed—unicorn food phase. However, before social media grabbed hold of these odd novelties in the food world and made them into overnight, oversaturated stars, there was Arun Sampanthavivat and his gem of a restaurant, Arun's in Chicago.

Arun's made its debut in Albany Park back in 1985. Sampanthavivat marched out a dozen courses without menus and had his brother draw intricate murals on the walls. After a couple years, the restaurant finally caught the eye of critics and emerged as a beloved institution in the Windy City dedicated to Thai fine dining. The draw of Sampanthavivat's food, as Jeff Ruby describes in Chicago Mag: "This is Willy Wonka stuff, Thai-style."

Late last year Arun's went up for sale, then closed for renovations and, after reopening earlier this year, Sampanthavivat emerged strong and with that same knack for whimsy. Which brings us back to rainbow food.

"I've been doing this from time to time since I opened Arun's in 1985," says Sampanthavivat. "It's one of the most exciting traditional cooking methods used in Thai cuisine."

He's been imbuing his dishes with a rainbow of flourishes long before it was trendy, crushing butterfly pea blossoms for a purple or blue dumpling skins, pandanus leaves for a bit of green in custards, turmeric and kabocha squash for bright yellow curries. It's the eye-catching reward after years of testing.

"I learned from observing my mother's cooking. She is extremely innovative in the kitchen," he says. "But the implementation comes from my own experimentation as I've taught myself to cook through trial and error."

He remembers trying to make his mother's seven-layer custard, alternating green and pink layers before steaming the rice- and coconut-milk dessert and serving. He worried about it coming out right (it did) and it inspired more confidence and risk for the entrepreneurial chefs.

Now the purple and blue dumplings are back at the new Arun's, but his commitment to experimentation hasn't wavered one bit.

"I always find myself in the mood to create new things whenever I come across fresh ingredients in the market. I often do out of sheer curiosity, without plan or purpose," Sampanthavivat says. "My way is pretty much open-ended, just like my cooking."

Arun's, 4156 N Kedzie Ave, 773-539-1909

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