Service With A Furrowed Brow

Bangkok House

2539 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; 871-2763

It's both endearing and heart-wrenching to watch a person try something new. First of all, you can't help but admire the way the new are (usually) intent on doing things the right way, cutting no corners, sparing no attention. Secondly, you can't help but be reminded of how jaded you've become by comparison, how good you've gotten at cutting corners. Of course, people are easily taken advantage of when new--the eager performers suckered into lousy contracts, the new assistant who gets bombarded with everyone else's work, the slighted virgins of the world, etc. I was conscious of these things during my visits to Bangkok House, a Thai/Chinese restaurant recently arrived on the scene of Asian restaurants and groceries on Nicollet Avenue.

As soon as we stepped in, we were the object of the wait staff's rapt attention. During the first five minutes after we sat down, our server unfolded our napkins into our laps and filled our glasses four times; even the most bird-like of sips would prompt someone with a pitcher to be at our side. The whole thing proved to be a little nerve-wracking, like marrying into royalty for love and then discovering your every move being nervously watched by the staff. But no matter; the intention is for you to feel regal, at least during your meal, and the salt-filled street outside is worlds away from this freshly painted and trimmed cafe. The embroidered pictures of elephants hang perfectly straight, the tablecloths are neatly ironed, the water glasses (before fills and refills) stuffed with intricately folded cloth napkins. Even the fish in the nearby bowl seem prime examples of their species--orange, fat, and happy. A disco ball and karaoke videos showing pensive couples strolling the beach just about puts this atmosphere over the top.

The menu is eclectic, and more than likely it will take you a while to figure out your favorites. The times we visited brought a few discordant notes among the ranks as to which dishes were great and which ones were "merely good," but everyone who went with me loved the restaurant as a whole. Maybe the menu is too ambitious, filled as it is with wide selections of soup, Thai salads, appetizers, Chinese dinners, Thai entrées, fried rice, and noodles dishes. But on our first visit we were won over by the fried tofu, deep-fried and sautéed in a dark, savory basil sauce, with a delightfully soft, pillow-like texture under its golden crisp "crust" ($3.95).

The Thai shrimp rolls looked spectacular, like two whales with curled little shrimp tails stuck on behind, a bit on the greasy side but stuffed with a mixture of glass noodles and carrots ($2.95). Best of the starters that we tried (and this was over the course of three visits, in case you thought we were being exceedingly gluttonous) were the coconut soup with chicken ($5.50) and the yum squid, a cold Thai salad ($6.25). Although the menu states that the soup serves two, the three of us nearly finished off three bowls' worth. Served in a bundt-cake pan with a flame shooting out of middle, it was paradise, bobbing with a fleet of button mushrooms and whole Thai chilies, with a sheen of chili oil on top. The cold squid salad was a mass of marinated red onion, carrots, and diamond-patterned spirals of chewy squid. We probably would have sparred over it more if we hadn't had the equally tasty soup to distract us.

Meanwhile, two waitresses busily dealt with the plates on our small table, one spacing them out perfectly, the other rearranging the work of the first. "Is everything okay?" they often asked, as if afraid we had been injured somehow during the process. Yes, everything is fine and wonderful, except that we felt a little guilty about being the cause of so much concern. You have to be careful; when my friend, a vegetarian, pushed his egg roll to the side, the waitress who passed by pushed it neatly back in place, as if the perfect geometry of the table setting was not something to be toyed with. When our soup orders were brought out and set in front of us in reverse, we smiled at the waitress and waited for her to turn before we switched, not wanting her to be upset. But to no avail; she saw out of the corner of the eye and rushed back, apologizing profusely for minutes. We felt terrible for making her feel terrible. Nothing like a guilt-ridden meal.

Drunken noodles were my favorite entrée, medium-sized noodles cut with lots of heated Thai peppers, cooked with basil sauce, and mixed with your choice of vegetable, pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, or all of the above ($6.95-8.95). The chicken curry soup ($5.75) I had for lunch was a little less thrilling, a bit too thin and dull for my taste. The Thai seafood in claypot ($15.95) was another mixed bag; I loved it, as it was bubbling hot and stuffed with scallops, shrimp, snow peas, baby corn, puckered mussels, and fish in a glass noodle base. But others with me thought it tasted a little bland and, tinged as it was with yellow and brown tones, too visually drab. Can't please everyone I guess.

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