Long Live the King

The med ma-mueng himmapan is a light combination of cashews and onions, seared and combined in a clear broth over the meat of your choice; with scallops ($15) the combination was nearly ethereal. The biggest surprise was perhaps the med ma-mueng prik pow, described on the menu as a roasted hot-pepper sauce with onions, peanuts, and cashews. I expected the sauce to be overpoweringly fiery, but in fact it was almost like a homemade Mexican mole, getting a depth of flavor from silky roast, ground nuts, and bright notes from the peppers. I had it on sliced beef ($12) and it was unforgettably good. Even desserts, such as an excellent coconut-banana cake ($7), which tasted a bit like a macaroon and was dressed up with coconut sorbet and a buttery caramel sauce, were very good.

Astoundingly, the wine list is good. And not just good, but Thai-food designed, festive, and reasonably priced. In Minnesota, this qualifies as something of a miracle, so pay heed: There are light, acidic, fruity whites like Bonny Doon Pacific Rim riesling ($6.75 a glass, $23 a bottle); dry, acidic, rounder whites like Château du Montfort Vouvray ($7.75/$28); smart, crisp rosés like the one from Château Routas ($6.25/$20); and a bunch of reds, nearly all of which were chosen to stand up to the super-saturated flavors of Thai sauces; there's even a good Champagne, Jacquesson Fils, for $42. If you're not a wine drinker you'll still find a top-notch beverage here. Beers run the gamut from cheap domestic bottles to Summit on tap to Asian and European imports. The full bar boasts everything from sipping tequilas to 21-year-old single-malt scotches to signature martinis ($6.75). There's even a selection of fresh-made nonalcoholic smoothies ($5.25) in flavors like coconut and passion fruit, which are served, daiquiri style, with fruit garnish and a paper umbrella. Sad to say, the wines and tippity-top-shelf whiskeys, cognacs, and cordials don't get happy hour pricing.

In fact, my quibbles with the restaurant were few, and the main one is particularly odd: The space is permeated with a strange, wet-cigarette smell. Perhaps better ventilation in the bar would help. Additionally, few of the servers I found could really talk authoritatively about the menu. Many tended to perceive the place as an upscale Leann Chin, pushing the least adventurous dishes, like the cream-cheese rolls ($4). I imagine people who aren't comfortable with a Thai menu would be a bit at sea here.

The lunch buffet ($7.95) when I tried it wasn't very good; most of the items were steam-table pallid. Co-owner Gary Haanpaa says the number of items on the buffet will soon increase from five to seven, and will always include a couple of vegetarian items. He points out that his restaurant is only a longish block from the new Target tower that displaced him, and hopes that the restaurant will soon be getting the business-lunch crowd it used to have on Nicollet. If that happens, the buffet will doubtless improve, since the key to any buffet is frequency of replenishment.

The one big problem nowadays, says Haanpaa, is that no one is using King and I's free valet parking. "It's not terrible to park down here, but it's not easy either," he says. "We know that people from Plymouth or Eden Prairie are downtown-leery, so we wanted a situation where they could just pull up and get out of their car, and enter the restaurant. We've got space for 150 cars. Most nights we don't even park 30. I guess sometimes you can't even give something away." Well, true and not true: The half-price-drink happy hour, weekdays from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., is drawing quite a group of fans. (There are also two-for-one drinks Wednesday night in the lounge, from 9:00 p.m. to midnight.)

So, why can you can hand out half-price drinks pretty easily when free parking spots go begging? I'm guessing it's because the people who know and like Thai food and good wine and beer lists are the same people who possess advanced urban parking skills, and it's going to take a couple years of word of mouth before this gem starts drawing the big parking-phobic masses. In the meantime, just think of those all those empty parking spaces as physical evidence of room to grow.

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