True Thai Story

A decade in the making, an Asian gem that's neither dumbed down nor sugared up

True Thai
2627 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
612.375.9942
www.truethairestaurant.com

I'm always curious about the private conversations that go on in immigrant communities about the giant masses of white people they suddenly have to deal with. As a restaurant critic, I generally figure I am in the worst possible seat to hear these conversations, because the balance of power is so ridiculously out of whack between small restaurateurs and little old me. Yet talking on the phone to Anna Prasomphol Fieser, the co-owner of newish True Thai in Seward, I began to get the unusual sense that she was sharing the real deal with me, the actual thinking and conversation about mysterious, inscrutable Caucasians that informs the menu design and recipes in a Southeast Asian restaurant in this town. And brother, it ain't pretty.

"I really don't know why I had to open a restaurant," says Prasomphol Fieser, "I've been a public health nurse for 10 years, so I don't need another job." (She still works full time, as a nurse.) "But I like to eat a lot, I would go out at least twice a week--but there is no Thai food! So I think, I have to do something about it. I feel enormous pressure. I want to represent Thailand--the food, the country, the creativity, everything. For seven years, I tried to find a cook. But I couldn't find a cook that would do the food like they do it in Thailand. I interviewed so many people, they all said: Sure, I'll come and work for you, but you live in America now, you are serving to American people, they eat bland food, so you have to adapt to that taste, blah blah blah. I don't want to do that! Then I'll be like the rest of Thai restaurants: Laotian cooks that are not actually Thai cooks, and none of them professionally trained.

Bah dum cha! Seriously, folks, take my catfish salad, please. Oh no, wait, give it back, I want it, because that dish is an amazing thing.
Kathy Easthagen
Bah dum cha! Seriously, folks, take my catfish salad, please. Oh no, wait, give it back, I want it, because that dish is an amazing thing.

"Then, I found Chef Nong." Chef Nong, who goes only by that name, has been cooking for some 31 years, and was head chef at Chitpochana Restaurant, a 1,200-seat fine-dining establishment in Bangkok, Thailand, according to Prasomphol Fieser. Chef Nong had been living in the Twin Cities for 10 years, but reportedly no one would let her cook in the truly Thai style.

"Nobody wanted her to use her own recipes," says Prasomphol Fieser. "They say, 'Okay, you can work here, but you can't use your recipes. You can only use our recipes, because we want to cook for the American people, to the American taste', so she really did not have the opportunity to express herself. But now, the recipes she has been using at True Thai are the same recipes she used at Chitpochana Restaurant. Everybody in Thailand knows about Chitpochana, but other Minnesota restaurants would tell Chef Nong it's too Thai--if you cook like that our restaurant will surely fail. Everything in Thai restaurants in Minnesota is too sweet. Thai restaurant owners here believe that American people like sweet, so they do everything sweet sweet sweet! Thai food has four flavors--sweet, salty, sour, and spice, and for a dish to be good it must be all four. But around here it's just sweet."

After years of looking, Prasomphol Fieser had finally found a chef. Then she and her longtime romantic partner, and now restaurant partner, Charles Whitney, started looking for a restaurant space. Whitney spent many years working as a paramedic in Southeast Asian refugee camps. He was on the first medical team sent to Thailand in 1978 by the American Refugee Committee, he says. He and Prasomphol Fieser met when she was waiting tables in a Minnesota Thai restaurant and he was between overseas assignments; they got to chatting in Thai, and now we have this fantastic restaurant. But I get ahead of myself.

They found the little spot on the corner of 26th and Franklin avenues, which has been one terrible Thai restaurant or another for as long as I can remember, and took it over. Three months of renovations followed, much of which involved improving the kitchens, and installing a prep kitchen in the basement for the extensive prep work needed to cook all the Thai dishes from scratch. Every curry paste is made from scratch, say True Thai's owners: Peels are extracted from expensive fresh kaffir limes, which are blended in secret combination with various things which include chilies, tamarind, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and every spice you can think of. Charles Whitney's parents were brought out of retirement in Florida, and set to assisting the wait staff.

Then, before the opening, the inevitable dark dilemma: To cream cheese wonton, or to not cream cheese wonton? "For many nights I laid awake, tossing and turning, tossing and turning," says Prasomphol Fieser. "We have no cream cheese in Thailand. I am tossing and turning, tossing and turning. Finally, at the last minute I decided yes! Because kids come in just for that. So I do it for the children."

I usually don't give so very much space to a restaurateur's own words, but I felt like in this instance it provided a pretty interesting insight into the thinking that us people on the other side of the restaurant check don't often get: the intentional dumbing down--or, more literally, sugaring up--of the food, the behind-the-scenes arguments that result in these on-plate monstrosities of mayonnaise-Alfredo sauce, heart-attack-stuffed chimichangas, and corn-syrup pad Thai.

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...