On average it takes Chef Champ Akkarapol, owner of Thai Neighbor, 250 Chicago Ave., three minutes and 18 seconds to get a dish from the wok to the plate. Yes, he times himself.
“Every dish at Thai Neighbor is single cooked,” said Champ. “In some restaurants things are batch cooked and divided into servings. Not here — here we focus on the individual dish and the honest flavors that come as a result.”
After a 14-month property renovation, Thai Neighbor opened in September 2020—smack in the middle of a global pandemic. Despite the challenge Champ persevered to bring his fresh approach to Thai cuisine to hungry Oak Parkers.
“I want to have my customers come to me like they go to their neighbor’s house to have dinner,” said Champ who is especially committed to making Thai Neighbor a welcoming place for people in the LGBTQ community.
Champ, who is half Thai and half Chinese, has been influenced by the duo of cooking cultures. His biological father was Chinese and came from a family of strong cooks who taught him organization, technique, and wok cooking. His mother, Toom Wiitanen, a former restaurant owner is Thai and taught Akkarapol to cut tropical fruits by her side when he was just 10. She immigrated to the United States from Thailand in the late 1990’s. In November 2001, Champ and his two brothers joined their mother and were adopted by their stepfather.
“Can you imagine?” he asked. “I was 16 years old and thrown into American high school in Chicago. I had some English, but not enough.”
Despite encountering bullies, he relied on his strength to get through the difficult transition and credits his life experience with helping him grow into a quick thinker capable of moving forward despite challenging circumstances. The family has been through thick and thin together and Champ is proud to come from a family of fighters and hard workers. To this day, he considers his mother and grandmother to be his primary culinary influences who taught him the six flavors—salty, sour, bitter, sweet, spicy, and umami.
Attention to detail, respect for flavor and holding himself to high standards drives Champ to give his customers a Thai dining experience featuring a customizable menu with vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. Additionally, he offers a “Chef Gone Crazy” special designed to give adventurous diners a surprise off-menu creation. For example, he may take a traditionally wet Massaman curry and transform it into a rice dish studded with shrimp and beef.
“Curries are my specialty.” he said. “My mom taught me how to make curries 20 years ago.”
Due to the industry wide worker shortage, Champ is currently the solo employee at Thai Neighbor and handles prep, phones, cooking and packaging. On Mother’s Day he took 13 orders totaling 60 individual dishes. Thai Neighbor is currently open 25 hours per week. In the five hours the restaurant is open daily, Champ has the capacity to accept up to 20 orders. Patrons are encouraged to call when the restaurant opens at 4 p.m. and place their order for pick up later in the evening — slots are given on a first come first serve basis.
Thai Neighbor is open Wednesday through Sunday from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.