From Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis to St. Paul's Selby Avenue, Thai is popping up all over.
I'm beginning to think that I missed the memo -- the one titled "The Next 50 Restaurants to Open in the Twin Cities Must Be Thai." Seriously, it's getting to the point where a person can't swing so much as a salt-stained Ugg without knocking over a bowl of Tom Yum soup.
It would be an exaggeration to label any of the most recent crop of Thai newbies as watershed dining events, but there are plenty of reasons to make a habit out of any of them. At the top of the list lies Sen Yai Sen Lek. Co-owner Joe Hatch-Surisook takes his culinary cues from both Bangkok street fare and the sense memories of his mother's cooking, which means that much of his tightly focused and affordable menu (nothing tops $12) is unlike anything else available in the Twin Cities.
It's unthinkable to visit the restaurant (its name translates to "Big Noodle, Little Noodle") and not order a noodle dish. But first, don't skip the fabulous lettuce wraps, which arrive looking a bit like a painter's palette, with a pile of curly lettuce leaves surrounded by small piles of chewy dried shrimp, crunchy toasted peanuts, tangy cubed ginger, smoky toasted coconut and, for the brave, incendiary fresh Thai chiles, along with a pungent shrimp sauce. It's a fabulous preview of coming attractions.
Next up: Marvelous spring rolls, diminutive things rolled with cool cucumbers, cooked eggs and a mild pork sausage and served with a brawny tamarind sauce, as well as piping-hot fish cakes that are little brown disks livened with kaffir lime leaves, and plump chicken skewers, perfect for dunking into a zingy peanut sauce. All are a treat.
But back to the noodle dishes. My favorite is a big, steaming bowl of slightly sweet chicken broth filled with snappy shrimp dumplings, thin shavings of barbecued pork, bits of fried garlic, tons of long egg noodles and a handful of pert cilantro. Hatch-Surisook later told me that the dish stems from one his mother made when he was growing up, and all I can say is, he was one lucky kid; it's difficult to imagine anything more satisfying on a subzero day.
Over the course of his menu he utilizes probably eight or nine different noodles, and it's an adventure to slurp through all of them, finding the one that best suits your mood and your appetite. Ditto the dozen-or-so rice dishes.
If Hatch-Surisook's cooking doesn't have the razzle-dazzle good looks found at many of his competitors, it more than makes up for it in terms of sheer flavor. One of the restaurant's most admirable traits is that it doesn't go all Minnesota-tame when it comes to embracing the glorious hot-sour aspects of Thai cooking.
The flavors are sharp and bright, aided in no small part by small glass jars of taste-boosting condiments: love those tantalizing jalapeños in vinegar, the piquant fish sauce ramped up with Thai chiles and the house-toasted-and-ground Thai chiles. It's a do-it-yourself strategy for cranking up the spicy heat, rather than relying upon the kitchen and some crazy, "How hot do you like it?" scale, as if there is universal agreement on what one-through-five actually means.
Hatch-Surisook wisely sources first-rate proteins raised in rurual Minnesota (Kadejan chickens from Glenwood; pork from Fischer Farms Natural Pork in Waseca; grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills Cattle Co. in Cannon Falls), an effort that pays off, flavor-wise, big time. This summer he and his spouse (and co-owner), Holly, are partnering with a local Hmong farmer to supply the restaurant with Chinese broccoli, Thai basil, Thai chiles and other produce building blocks. Their customers will no doubt benefit from the arrangement.
The couple's modest but airy side-by-side dining rooms ratchet up Central Avenue's panache quotient. There are well-worn maple floors, vivid mango- and chile-colored walls, fresh flowers and looky art, including lovely paintings and haunting black-and-white photographs produced by Joe's father. There's even a decent and afforably minded wine and beer list, and the Hatch-Surisooks, with two kids of their own, cater to young ones with a does-the-trick children's menu, with four $5 options. Best dessert? Izzy's caramel-sea salt ice cream.
Appetite for Thai
Sen Yai Sen Lek isn't the only Thai newcomer in town. There's tiny Mango Thai Cuisine. Co-owners Chai Harris Vang and Marlene Rachwat put a premium on visual appeal; their food is unusually good looking, and the abundance of fresh herbs -- love those cool, clean spring rolls -- does its part to keep the flavor quotient high.
A few menu highlights include the sweet-crispy crab rolls, the succulent duck with ginger accents and the unassuming steamed spinach dressed in a curry-peanut sauce. Their cute storefront setup (it seats 35, tops) deftly employs the brand of cheap chic that runs rampant in post-college apartments. If MaYgo inspires a bit of dining deja vu among Minneapolis diners, there's a reason: Vang and Rachwat are the team behind Chai's Thai (414 1/2 Cedar Av. S., Minneapolis, 612-339-9385, chaisthai.com), a pint-sized gem in the city's West Bank neighborhood.
Roat Osha is another second effort, and a stylish one at that, this time by spouses Somsap and Steve Hein, co-owners of nearby Tum Rup Thai (1221 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612-824-1378, tumrupthai.com). Their lengthy menu covers all the familiar bases, but I found much of what I sampled rather boilerplate; you know, Midwestern Thai, deluxe version. Pretty? Sometimes. Vivid tasting? Occasionally. Perfunctory? Often, in a been-there, tasted-that kind of way (one notable exception is a lovely, and delicious, pan-fried walleye with a green curry sauce that screams "signature dish").
But despite the low-flying culinary fireworks, the restaurant has pluses: Off-street parking -- a major Uptown asset -- a rather rockin' bar, perky servers, get-me-a-doggy-bag portions, moderate prices. Oh, the Heins have handed the neighborhood a big favor by replacing a shabby fast-food outlet with a stone-and-glass structure that's as handsome on the inside as it is on the outside.
The cooking feels more personal at Kindee Thai Restaurant. Co-owner Nuntanit Charoensit, a Bangkok native, is cooking her heart out, and her passion and enthusiasm often make a beeline for the plate. I'm crazy about her lettuce wraps, a combination of highly seasoned ground chicken, mint, generous squeezes of lime and toasted and ground rice rolled up in leaf lettuce. Her spring rolls fairly burst with mint, crunchy red cabbage and snappy shrimp.
I particularly like her rich, aromatic curries (don't miss the duck roasted with grapes) and how she offers brown rice as well as jasmine, a thoughtful touch. Aside from what appear to be recently added awnings, chic Kindee is a prime candidate to star in an episode of HGTV's "Curb Appeal," because the restaurant is nearly invisible from the street, despite its million-dollar address, kitty-corner from the Guthrie Theater. That's a shame because it doesn't deserve to be overlooked. At lunch, for example, Charoensit offers a great deal: smaller portions of one of six appetizers and one of nine entrees for $11. Pre-Guthrie matinee lunch, here I come.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757