The lettuce wrap is quite possibly the single most co-opted dish on the Asian foods circuit, as predictable as a Cher farewell tour. Except at Sen Yai Sen Lek, where the make-your-own-ers feature toasted coconut, chewy bits of ginger and dried shrimp, juicy lime slices, crunchy peanuts and dainty snips of incendiary Thai chiles. A few swipes of a pungent dried shrimp sauce, a quick flick of the wrist and bam! With each bite, the vivid flavors and textures go rat-a-tat-tat on the tongue.
Co-owners Joe (a Chet's Taverna and Nicollet Island Inn alum) and Holly Hatch-Surisook pack a lot of flavor into their friendly new enterprise. For their first restaurant, the couple considered opening a food cart (a la the Chef Shack, the gotta-visit Mill City Farmers Market staple), but licensing hassles and fearsome Minnesota winters nudged them toward something less mobile. They used St. Paul's Tanpopo Noodle Shop as a model. "We like that place so much," said Joe. "They concentrate on a very small portion of Japanese cuisine, and they do such a good job of it."
Their menu is similarly focused, concentrating on two dozen street fare-inspired rice and noodle dishes (the name translates to Big Noodle, Little Noodle). The meats and poultry are locally sourced, and the rock em'-sock em' condiments are made in-house. Most prices are under $11, and a half-dozen lunch specials go for $8.
The former home of the Palm Court, a pair of railroad car-sized storefronts, has been given a cheery once-over, with chile- and mango-colored walls decorated with eye-catching black-and-white photos and gorgeous swaths of framed silk. There's a pleasant beer list, and it's hard to find an over-$30-per-bottle price on the wine roster.