Baht of Course!

Another exceptional dish was the airy pineapple fried rice ($9.99), jasmine rice scented with fresh coconut milk and tossed with roasted cashews, grilled shrimp, fresh pineapple, and green onions. Fragrant, sprightly, and elegant but also quite pretty, this dish was served like a horn-of-plenty mounded over from a quarter of a pineapple shell. (Other nice tabletop touches include a tall, silvery urn filled with rice.) Another favorite was Curry Sauce Noodles ($7.99), buoyant rice noodles in a deep earthy broth laced with chunks of beef. And if you have the foresight to order Seafood Soufflé in Young Coconut ($14.99) a few days in advance, you'll be treated to a combination of mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid tossed with rice and the aromatic brown milk of a special variety of imported Thai coconut, and baked like a casserole in the coconut shell.

Most Thai restaurants offer some rendition of "sticky rice"--glutinous rice that should be steamed with a purée of coconut meat and milk. Sadly, many offer nothing more than ordinary rice drenched with Coco Lopez, with the result not unlike munching sugar straight out of the bowl. At Royal Orchid the sticky rice is authentic, steamed in a little mold so it comes out as neat as a bun with the soothing taste of a rice pudding. Served alongside a sliced mango ($2.99), this dessert affords another glimpse of Sukhtipyaroge's skills with a knife; the mango fans out in little blocks of checkerboard precision.

As the restaurant owner sits at the window whittling fruit into magic, he talks about some Thais from Chicago who regularly make the trek up to Minneapolis just for his food. "In Thailand people would travel all day for good food, but here people will eat anywhere only because it's convenient," he says. "People tell me, 'I'd like to come here more often, but I live in St. Paul.' What's St. Paul? I come from St. Paul every single day.

"It's hard when people are so used to nontraditional Thai food. They don't seem to be too picky about what's good," Sukhtipyaroge laments. "When I used to work in computers, I made three times what I make here. Some days I think I'll never get rich on this restaurant, I'll close it down. Then I think: I'm happy, I make a lot of people happy who are looking for real Thai food. It's a personal relationship, I love to see the customers when they come back to me. That's why they come back--to see me, to have real Thai food from my family's recipes." Making ready for those customers, he carefully affixes his carrot roses to the silk rosebushes near the entryway.

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