Sue at Dharma Garden Thai always recognizes me when I phone in an order for pickup. The other night there was nothing to eat in the kitchen, so M asked me if I thought we should order takeout.
“Sure", I said.
“Where should we order from?” he asked. There’s only two places we ever order from - a Persian restaurant on Kedzie called Noon-o-Kebab, and Dharma Garden Thai. If he hadn’t suggested it I would have done so myself. “Do we have a menu?” he asked. We don’t even need a menu at this point, but I went along with this well rehearsed scene, the lines of dialogue etched into our memory as if we were actors at a dress rehearsal. I opened the drawer on the sideboard where we keep all our takeout menus, and ruffled through them looking for the right one.
The way it works in our house I do the ordering, and M does the pickup. He has a phobia of speaking to strangers on the telephone, and I don’t really drive so the work naturally divides itself. I dialed the number, and Sue picked up on the other end.
“Hello, Dharma Garden Thai?” she said, more like a question than a statement.
“Hello, I’d like to place an order for pickup.”
“Okaaaaay, what would you liiiiike?" Sue asked, extending her vowels.
“An order of Thai spring rolls"
“Okaaaaay. Anything eeeelse?”
“Fruits and vegetables salad…” Sue's tone changed suddenly to enthusiastic recognition.
“Oh hiiiiii!" she said, loud enough that M could hear it from a distance of three feet. It is a mark of our frequent patronage of Dharma Garden Thai that Sue recognizes me based on this particular salad, maybe I’m the only one who orders it. I first tried it because they were out of something else, and she suggested that I try it. It’s made of a mix of seasonal fruits and vegetables, which doesn’t sound like it would be good but it is, and I order it three out of four times now. “Anything eeeeelse?”
“Yes, and a potato massaman curry.”
“With shrimp please.”
“Would you like a dessert?”
“What do you have this evening?”
“We have sticky rice with mangooooooo.”
“Oh, great! Yes, one of those please.”
“Okaaaay J... Beautiful skiiiiin,” she said before disconnecting.
I don’t know if all Thai women are as focused on skin as Sue is, but she remarks on this most visible organ of mine every time I place an order, even when I’m not there in person for her to see it. The first time it happened we were dining in, and she approached our table.
“Are you vegan?” she asked me. Dharma Garden Thai is a vegetarian restaurant, so it was a reasonable question.
“No,” I said, “I eat meat, but I come here because the food is delicious.”
“Ooooh. I thought you were vegan,” Sue said. She leaned in closer, “you know whyyyyyy?”
“Because your skin," she said, lowering her voice, “it fresh. Like a peeled vegetable.” She reached her hand out and brushed the back of her fingers against my cheek as if she were sizing up the quality of a skein of fabric. Then she walked away, her diminutive figure rocking back and forth slightly as she paced the floor, her years as a mother and grandmother showing only in her gait.
Dharma Garden Thai is located on Irving Park Road between a Dunkin’ Donuts and a store that sells vintage guitars. An antique bar lines the left side of the interior, it has about ten regular tables, and there’s a nook by the window where you can take your shoes off and sit in a sunken couch; this area is referred to as the “Thai Corner”. A number of Buddha statues and lotus flowers serve as decoration, and the radio is always tuned to Lite FM. I’d recommend it for the food, which is unlike any Thai restaurant I’ve been to, but Sue's flattery notwithstanding the service leaves something to be desired. I recently met up with some friends there on a Friday night, when they arrived they were the only customers, and Sue actually asked them if they’d made a reservation. Another time some friends we’d recommended the restaurant to waited twenty minutes for the bill to appear, and there were only two other tables being served at the time. Once, after I’d returned from a trip to Morocco, Sue said to me “why you don’t visit my country?” She asked this in a hushed voice, her dark eyes peering up at me as if there had been a longstanding argument between us concerning travel, and this new piece of information had finally broken her heart.
Until recently Dharma Garden Thai’s website was full of information, most of it having nothing to do with the restaurant. There were pages devoted to the virtues of eating well, and spiritual practices that healed the mind and spirit as well as the body. When I first started ordering for pickup Sue didn’t ask for my name, and once in a while we’d get home before realizing we had somebody else’s order. It added a sense of adventure to our takeout dining experience, and expanded our palette. In more recent months she’s been asking for my name before I hang up the phone.
M walked through the back door holding two hot bags full of food, an expression of confidence and plunder on his face.
“She asked about you,” he said.
“Really?” I asked, “what did she say?”
“How is my girlfriiiiiiiiiiend?” M said, mimicking Sue’s cadence.
I had the folding TV trays set up in the living room, we unpacked the paper bags and dug in. The spring rolls were fresh, and the fruits and vegetables salad was a bright contrast to the massaman curry. We were stuffed by the time we got to dessert but devoured it anyway, the coconut milk-infused sticky rice causing us take a temporary leave of our senses.