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Using 200-Year-Old Bread Recipes, pHlour Bakery Makes Delicious Simple

By Linze Rice | May 12, 2017 6:14am

EDGEWATER — Using ancient techniques and family recipes, Edgewater's newest bakery is going back to the basics when it comes to making bread.

pHlour Bakery & Cafe, 1138 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., is the brainchild of Cafe Baci co-founder Surapol Wongkamalasai, who after 20 years of working in his downtown restaurant began a fascination with wanting to create his own breads. 

The bakery relies on a return to simpler times by calling for just water, flour and a bit of salt to create breads with soft, spongy insides and crispy, bubbly crusts.

The secret to its toned-down approach? A slow, drawn-out fermentation process that essentially creates the cafe's own yeast naturally. It's the way people made bread 200 years ago, he said.

This creates a "sourdough starter" known as levain that acts as a living organism and is "fed" twice daily by kitchen staff. Yeast is then added to dough to make the bread rise and give it a rich, hearty flavor.

"I don't want to do commercial, I like the old-fashioned way of making bread," Wongkamalasai said. "The levain, you have to raise it for years and years to create the flavor, and then you keep feeding it... it's like a baby."

Staples like sourdough, ciabatta, foccacia and baguettes all make the menu alongside classics like white, wheat and multi-grain. The "queen" of the loaves is the pHlour loaf, which combines whole wheat flour and natural yeast for a 36-hour fermentation marathon that results in a "full-bodied, country loaf taste."

His son Bobby Wongkamalasai, who recently graduated college with a degree in journalism and French, makes the haul from Lincoln Park into the shop at 4 a.m. each day to begin working the dough for the morning and put the first loaves of the day into the ovens. 

On Thursday, the bakery celebrated its debut along the Bryn Mawr Historic District with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The shop also serves pastries, coffee, sandwiches and salads.

The elder Wongkamalasai said he's been involved in Chicago food since moving here from Thailand in 1974. As he earned his business degree, he worked his way through various food joints, a path some of his children would also come to follow. 

Once his dad's passion for bread-baking took off, Bobby said it began to spark his interest as well.

He recently attended a week-long intensive bread-baking intensive and plans to move to the neighborhood this summer to be closer to the shop.

"This is my dad's passion, and it kind of grew on me," he said, adding his habit of studying French culture also enhanced the appeal of baking. "There's some form of creative artist in me, it doesn't really matter what the outlet is for me ... and this kind of just goes with that."

Daughter Melissa Wongkamalasai-Monar came up with the bakery's scaled back interior design, which includes a kitchen visible through a wrap-around wall of windows, exposed brick, a stunning original wood bow truss ceiling and double-fold windows.

Wongkamalasai said he was familiar with Edgewater because he'd earlier lived in Ravenswood, but when he saw Lovely, Too put the location up for sale last year he quickly moved on it and hasn't looked back. 

"I know the neighborhood," Wongkamalasai said. "I like the street, I like the historic district, I like the traffic. I've seen the neighborhood change a lot for the positive."

The bakery is open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. daily.

Photos by Linze Rice.