Good value and fresh food make these Thai restaurants worth a visit.
You could almost call it a three-way Thai. You can find many of the same dishes at Chai's Thai Restaurant, the Diner and Tum Rup Thai, but although the preparations are sometimes similar, the settings are dramatically different.
At Chai's, a tiny storefront next door to the Cedar Cultural Center on Minneapolis' West Bank, a fresh coat of paint, a few temple rubbings and some keepsake family photos have transformed the former Korea House from grungy to graceful.
Presentation is more stylish and sophisticated than you might expect at a restaurant where everything on the menu is $9 or less. Dishes are served on black stoneware, and sometimes on banana leaves, while the tea is brought to the table in ornamental cast-iron teapots. Soups are served in a steel hot pot, and stir-fries are festively garnished with curly orange and white strands of julienned carrot and radish.
The menu is mostly Thai, but with a few Japanese touches, such as shrimp tempura, edamame (boiled fresh soybean pods) and a pan-grilled wasabi tuna salad. Best and most unusual of the appetizers I sampled was the crab avocado spring roll, served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. Purists might grumble about the tomatoes in the spicy tom yum soup, but the key ingredients were all there: straw mushrooms, lemon grass, galangal and ample amounts of shrimp, squid and scallops.
The stir-fries, especially-- cashew chicken with chiles, mushrooms and water chestnuts, or the white pepper and garlic seafood -- have a crisp freshness that is somehow enhanced by the beauty of their presentation. The green curry with beef and eggplant is a less dramatic presentation, but for flavor, it just might be the best in town.
Biggest drawback: No wine or beer, at least not yet.
The Diner Family Restaurant
The Diner Family Restaurant still serves many of the same dishes it did back when Frank Hall opened the joint 55 years ago, such as breaded pork cutlets with applesauce; roast turkey with mashed potatoes and gravy; patty melts and burgers, and, of course, breakfast anytime. And the classic diner decor is still in place, with red booths and stools in one dining room, and a stunning collection of '50s-era motel art in the other.
But after the Kornpipatna family took over this past spring, they added a Thai menu, served weekdays from 3 to 8 p.m. The Thai cuisine is surprisingly good, and the prices are among the lowest in town; here, too, nearly all entrees are less than $10.
The Kornpipatnas do cut a few corners here and there, such as making the hot and spicy tom seafood yum soup with supermarket mushrooms instead of imported straw mushrooms. But the pad Thai noodles were the best of these three restaurants, and the pra ram long song, crisply fried tofu served over spinach and a lively peanut sauce, was also excellent, as was the pad khing with pork, a colorful medley of black ginger, green onion, carrot, black fungus and bean curd in a lively soy-flavored sauce. No alcohol.
Tum Rup Thai
The best restaurant for a date is Tum Rup Thai, which offers a full bar and a hip ambience of Uptown Asian chic. I found the dishes uneven, but if you choose carefully, you can dine well here. We were delighted with the appetizer of crisp fried squid, accompanied by colorful dipping sauces of red and green chile, and very happy with the tom yum soup, which has all the right ingredients, and the perfect balance of hot and sour.
The pad Thai was a bit wetter and more soy-saucy than it should have been, but it, too, was quite enjoyable, as was the glass noodle salad, a lively and refreshing medley of chopped chicken, cellophane noodles, red onions, tomatoes and peanuts, flavored with lime juice, cilantro and hot Thai peppers.
I was less satisfied with some of the other dishes I sampled. Thick coconut milk overpowered the other ingredients in the green curry with tofu, and a grilled seafood salad had too much hot pepper and too much lettuce. The ginger mushroom stir-fry and the red curry with pork had lots of colorful vegetables but lacked the complexity and subtlety of the best Thai curries. Tum Rup Thai isn't quite as much of a bargain as Chai's or the Diner, but most of the meat and vegetarian entrees are less than $10, and most of the seafood entrees are less than $15.
Chai's Thai Restaurant, 414 1/2 Cedar Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-339-9385. Open Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday noon to 10 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. All major credit cards. Entrance is wheelchair-accessible; restrooms are not.
The Diner Family Restaurant, 2545 27th Av., Minneapolis, 612-729-9821. weekdays 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thai food served weekdays 3 to 8 p.m. No credit cards; personal checks accepted with proper ID. Back entrance is wheelchair-accessible; restrooms are not.
Tum Rup Thai, 1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612-824-1378. Open Sunday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight. All major credit cards. Completely accessible.