My two new favorite words are nam khao.
It’s the name of a classic Laotian crispy rice snack. For those who associate the word “snack” with “Chex Mix” — and that includes yours truly — nam khao will be a happy revelation.
At Lat14 Asian Eatery, it starts by mixing steamed rice with a lively red curry paste, Kaffir lime and the richness of coconut flesh. The mixture is formed into balls and deep fried, and then those umami grenades are crushed into bite-size pieces and tossed with cured ground pork, fish sauce, more lime juice and chopped peanuts.
The rice salad arrives on a platter that’s also piled high with lettuce leaves and fragrant herbs; the do-it-yourself results are a firecracker-like burst of contrasting but complementary flavors and textures.
“I grew up eating nam khao,” said chef/owner Ann Ahmed. “It’s a very social dish, the kind of dish that always brought the aunties and the cousins together. Once you start eating it, you can’t stop. Lots of Laotian foods fit into the snacking category. We love the do-it-yourself element. Anything we can wrap, we wrap. ”
Yes, nam khao is a must-order at Lat14, which is devoted to exploring a huge range of flavors found near the 14th parallel in Southeast Asia.
The restaurant, which opened a little over a year ago, is working overtime to change the tired reputation that equates suburban with boring.
Placing a premium on shareable dishes is a maxim that reaches all the way up to the menu’s crowning achievement, a spectacular whole red snapper.
Ahmed and her collaborative cooking crew — led by Phil McNally and sous chef Zach Rodriguez — have also turned to branzino and striped bass for this signature whopper of a dish, but red snapper is the species that holds their attention.
Rightly so. Its skeletal structure is easily navigated, especially for diners unaccustomed to whole-fish preparations, and its firm, flaky and abundant flesh readily absorbs the dish’s lively red curry sauce, its modest heat burnished with coriander root, shallots and Kaffir lime leaves.
The process is simple: The plate-sized, ocean-fresh fish is dusted with tempura flour and fried, creating a delicate crispiness that yields to steaming succulence.
The coconut milk richness of that red curry sauce is countered by an ultra-fresh salad of cilantro and Thai basil. Like so much of this kitchen’s output, it’s a vividly colorful feast for the eyes.
The curries here are truly special, boasting deep layers of flavor that are obviously nurtured with great care. Kudos to the tomato-based curry that’s redolent of cloves, cinnamon, ginger and dry-roasted cumin and fueled with an Indian chile powder. It’s the basis of a beef stew that’s 100% comfort food, but one that’s far more transporting than, say, meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
And I loved the turmeric-tinted yellow curry, another coconut milk-based recipe that’s slightly sweeter than its counterparts. Ahmed uses it to sauté chicken thighs, tossing in a palate-cleansing bit of pickled mustard greens and crunchy egg noodles to create another splendid meal-in-a-bowl experience.
Back to the shareables. The menu’s opening salvo consists of a half-dozen small plates, and they’re ideal for gathering around and grazing, particularly when paired with a vivacious cocktail from bar director Trish Gavin.
For lumpia, the Philippines’ answer to egg rolls, Ahmed judiciously stuffs cabbage, carrots, onion and ground pork into long, cigar-like wrappers, keeping the grease to a minimum while maximizing the tantalizing crunch factor. Trust me, you’ll order a second round.
Chicken wings are also alive with textural contrasts, a noted crispiness to the skin that’s the opposite of the plentiful meat’s juiciness. Ahmed won’t reveal the perky seasoning mix, but if she did she could probably make a fortune. “It’s going to stay a secret,” she said with a laugh. “That’s my retirement plan.”
That’s another pleasure of dining at Lat14. Even familiar basics receive a glossy, imaginative twist, adding appealing new perspectives without altering the reason why the dish is so popular in the first place.
That includes cream cheese-filled wontons, sweetened here with crab. Or fried rice, made anew with fatty house-cured bacon and a fiery pineapple relish. Or a scrupulously rendered version of pad Thai.
Of special note are the affordably priced, mix-and-match rice and noodle bowls that anchor the lunch menu. They’re several quality-minded ranks above their standard food court brethren.
When I first started visiting Lat14 last winter, much of the food was brazenly, unapologetically hot, with bites frequently blazing with the sweat-inducing fire of Thai chiles piled on more Thai chiles.
In chilly Minnesota, those full-force pyrotechnics were a joy to behold. Since then, Ahmed has dialed down the kitchen’s heat perspective.
“We were listening to what guests wanted,” she said. “At the start, if you looked at it from a scale of one to five, we were probably at four, or 3 ½. Now it’s a little less in-your-face than before, less full-force, maybe around 2 ½.”
Tamed, yes, but trust me, there’s still plenty of kick, thanks to a pair of tableside condiments. One is a jar of house-roasted, oil-preserved Thai chiles; the other is a blend of fresh Thai chiles, fish sauce and lime juice. Both are handy do-it-yourself vehicles for cranking up the heat.
Ahmed has streamlined the menu, dropped some first-rate dishes (including spectacular samosas) for efficiency’s sake.
“We’re already pushing so many boundaries in the dishes that we serve,” she said. “The kitchen was being overwhelmed with variety, and that was making it difficult to be consistent. We decided to place more control on consistency rather than focus on so many dishes.”
Understandable, but disappointing for the hordes who are, justifiably, making a habit of the place, and might want to encounter more examples from Ahmed’s heritage.
I almost forgot about another notable dish. Roast duck is an Asian restaurant standard. It’s certainly no stranger to Ahmed’s first Twin Cities’ restaurant, 14-year-old Lemongrass Thai Cuisine in Brooklyn Park.
For her much more ambitious Golden Valley operation, Ahmed takes that roast duck tradition up a few notches, serving beautiful Rohan ducks two ways. The ruby-red breast meat is pan-seared, the tender legs are prepared confit style, and both are finished with variations on a tamarind-fueled sauce. The results? Impressive.
The overwrought desserts are a weak point, although a coconut-packed ice cream is uncomplicated and refreshing.
There’s a delicious irony in knowing that all of this out-of-the-box thinking resides in a former chain restaurant.
Ahmed and Shea Design of Minneapolis deserve every accolade for cleansing the landscape of a cookie-cutter Perkins franchise. Rather than calling in a bulldozer, they stripped the outdated building to its frame and started over. Well, not quite. Portions of the exterior’s profile still retain their power to transport Tremendous Twelve connoisseurs back to the 1970s.
But the interior — hip, stylish and comfortable — is a world apart. Walking in is akin to re-creating the patented “Omigod” moments that conclude just about every episode of “Home Town,” “Good Bones” or, frankly, any HGTV series that pivots on the before/after revelation, where a wreck of a property is magically transformed into a magazine-quality showplace. Spending time at Lat14 is a pleasure.
When I jokingly mentioned to Ahmed how several other metro-area dead Perkins outlets would benefit from her ingenuity and expertise — come on, there’s no question that the world would be a better place with more Lat14s — she politely replied that I wasn’t the first person to make that suggestion.
“The problem is finding the team to execute multiple Lat14s,” said Ahmed. “That’s the hard part. There just aren’t enough qualified people out there.”
But there are probably enough customers. Or, after a few bites of that nam khao, there certainly will be.