Long Live the King

King and I
1346 LaSalle Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 332-6928
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. (Friday till 11:00); Saturday 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Bar open Monday-Saturday till 1:00 a.m.

 

Sometimes you pull a pot off a houseplant, and find coils and coils of white root, twisting around in spirals. Sometimes those roots will grow so thick and matted they lift the plant right out of the dirt, signaling to all the plant's unhappiness. But sometimes the plant just stops growing, and sits there, patient, root-bound, waiting for the hands of fate to move it somewhere better. Move those root-bound plants to more capacious homes, and they often take off, having stored enough restless energy to propel them forward into sprouting shoots and leaves.

Restaurants get root-bound too, and I've never seen such a dramatic example of bloom after repotting as the growth that's happened since the King and I moved into its new home, behind the Hyatt on LaSalle, in the old Ciatti's and Robert Lee spot. Many of you will remember the King and I from its old incarnation on Nicollet Mall. It was a small, cramped, 15-table restaurant that opened in 1981, in the dawn-days of Minneapolis Thai food. When the original owners returned to Thailand ten years ago, it was purchased by the current owners, longtime cook Chavhivan "Bou" Haanpaa, and her husband, Gary Haanpaa. They kept it unchanged for nearly a decade, but then the longtime home of the restaurant was targeted for demolition so the new Target skyscraper could be built, and the Haanpaas took their show on the road. They finally reopened on January 27, 2000.

I visited the restaurant one sleepy February night soon after it opened, had a wonderful tureen of soup, and an otherwise chaotic meal stewarded by an incredibly confused server, and resolved to give them a few months to come into their own. I'm glad I did, because the restaurant is going gangbusters now: Recent visits found the front, flower-filled, sunken-patio area thriving, particularly during hot summer nights when it becomes the greatest secret-drink place in the Loring Park area. The wine list was attracting attention with Thai-friendly, decently priced bottles. And I got a number of dishes that left indelibly positive impressions.

The best of what I had was excellent: The two traditional Thai soups, tom ka and tom yum, are extraordinary. The tom ka is a sheer, silky coconut broth perfumed with lemon grass, gaining herbal grounding notes from fresh bamagoot--or kaffir lime--leaves, and spicy forward presence from large slices of fresh, gingerlike galangal, pounded pieces of lemon grass, and a whiff of chiles: Absolutely subtle, absolutely bold, absolutely delicious. The tom yum is just as good, the hot and sour broth offering lots of kick, but never overwhelming. Both soups come in large blue-and-white tureens, with big, pretty-handled pots of rice, and can be made with chicken ($12) or shrimp ($15). You're supposed to put rice in your bowl or cup, then ladle your soup over it. (That's why the soups are so potently flavored, because they're so intense you don't need much of them to feel satiated. I'd say one tureen easily makes a starter course for as many as six people.)

A couple of other dazzling starters were the spicy steak salad ($7), a combination of thinly sliced beef, decoratively cut cucumber slices, fresh chiles, onions, cilantro, cabbage, and firm tomato, marinated in a sour and sweet citrus-fish-sauce-touched dressing. It was so sizzling and surprising it was like eating sparks. Even a dish as potentially banal as curry puffs ($7.50) shines at the King and I: Here homemade sweet pastry half-moons are filled with cubes of curried potato and chicken, making them both sweet and savory. Items straight from the deep-fryer were wonderful, too: A plate of battered, deep-fried fresh oyster mushrooms ($5.50) was light, tender, sweet, and completely addictive. Dip the feathery bits in the accompanying, sauce of chopped herbs, chiles, and sweetened vinegar and you'll be astounded at the joy available in a serving of mushrooms. Calamari ($7) was also sweet, greaseless, and light. The only lackluster item I encountered in the appetizer menu was the toong tong ($7) dumpling stuffed with ground pork and shrimp: the things were adorable, hand-tied little sacks sashed with chives and boasting crispy, festive heads. Unfortunately, they were very bland.

Mercifully, none of the entrées I tried succumbed to that pitfall: Pad thai was freshly made, the noodles springy, the peanuts crisp, the bean sprouts crunchy. The King and I allows you to put any of the following in your pad thai: chicken, sliced beef, pork, barbecued pork, fresh tofu, fried tofu, mock duck, shrimp, scallops, calamari rings, or vegetables. Pad thai with one item generally costs $11, though it's $14 for seafood. Oddly, prices can ramp up steeply if you want to add in more items. You can get pad thai with three additions for $21, though I never would. At $21, I'd want it to get up and sing. The best version I tried contained fresh tofu, which nicely highlighted the fresh and salty aspects of the dish.

One of the most pleasant things about the new incarnation of the King and I is the restaurant's greatly expanded seafood list. This is now the only Thai restaurant I know of in the metro area where you can regularly find walleye, fresh scallops, crab claws, and an ever-changing fish of the day. Always available, a large, deep-fried, nicely crusty walleye fillet ($18) dressed with sweet, creamy red curry, was an unequivocal hit. Everyone loved the tender, flaky fish in its rich, two-layer cloak of breading and curry sauce. The most expensive dishes on the menu are the $27 seafood platters. I tried the pad ped ta lay, a nicely woody, brisk red curry uniting Thai eggplant, calamari, pink curls of shrimp, crab claws, chunks of walleye, and, especially good, tender medallions of scallop. (To get the best of this dish for less, consider No. 35, pad num prik gaeng dang, a red curry available with scallops for $15.)

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