Great Thai Outliers

Two fantastic Thai places revealed in the suburbs—so rejoice! Or gnash your teeth, depending.

Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine

8600 Edinburgh Centre Dr., Brooklyn Park

763.494.8809

If it were in Uptown, none of us could ever get in there: Brooklyn Park's Lemon Grass
Bill Kelley
If it were in Uptown, none of us could ever get in there: Brooklyn Park's Lemon Grass

Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais

6345 Penn Ave. S., Richfield

612.861.2491

www.naviyasthaikitchen.biz

Look to your left. Look to your right. Do you see any fellow citizens? If so, please know that these are your greatest enemies! I am not even kidding. No sooner do I write a restaurant review that tailors to your exact life, Dear Reader, than your fellow citizens start flooding my mailbox with protests: Why don't you ever write about the northern suburbs? What do you have against Richfield? Or, alternately: It's City Pages, Toots, not the Blinking Middle of Nowhere Pages! Well, it's time again for food lovers to get out their knives and set against one another, because I've got spectacularly happy news for some of you, and infuriating catastrophe for others: There are two fantastic, newish Thai places setting out plates of pure, spicy, beauteous glory right here in our fair metropolitan area. But one is in Brooklyn Park and the other is in Richfield, and if you don't like it, just kill each other and keep me out of it.

Seriously! I don't make the restaurants, I just report on them. People like Naviya and Kim LaBarge make them. Now, Naviya and Kim LaBarge are a true 21st-century, globetrotting couple. They fell in love when Naviya visited Texas on a sales call for her family's Bangkok noodle factory. One thing led to another, including holy matrimony, and after Kim accepted a job at the Bluefin Bay resort up north, Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais was born.

The new Richfield restaurant, which is the subject of this review and opened this winter, was meant to be the second restaurant in the family's new chain. Unfortunately, they lost the lease on the Grand Marais spot, and now it looks like there will be no Grand Marais branch, leaving us with one of the most oddly named restaurants in the metro. South Siders, prepare to spend the rest of your year recounting the following to all your nearest and dearest: "No, the restaurant's not in Grand Marais, it's by the foot of the water tower in Richfield. No, it's not food made with pinecones and berries. No, it's not by the Lunds, it's further down—look, I'll pick you up." And pick them up you will, because this thing is the find of the year for all those of you living south of Minnehaha Creek and north of I-494.

What will you love most at Naviya's? Probably something from the cold side of the menu, because the place assembles salads, spring rolls, and such with the exacting grace of a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant, using labor-intensive cutting styles and the most painstaking last-minute strategies to provide the biggest possible flavor.

The Thai grilled beef salad (yum nue, $11.95) is a great example of a recipe that seems very simple—just a lively, fresh lime juice and raw palm sugar dressing uniting meat and vegetables. In fact, the dish is made through a series of labor-intensive steps designed to deliver the most flavor possible. First, yellow and red bell peppers, onions, and tiny Thai chiles are hand cut into tiny micro dice, and pre-marinated in dressing with some other spices. The vegetables are then combined with minced cilantro and other herbs, jazzed up with fresh dressing, and added to a plate on which grilled strips of beef have been placed on a bed of lettuce. The overall effect is like something from a nouvelle cuisine kitchen, with artful, tiny fronds of cilantro floating in a dressing so clean, so fresh you want to pick the plate up and drink from it. It's not at all what you expect when you first step into the former fast-food restaurant shell, barely transformed with potted plants and photos of the Thai king, but I found many dishes at Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais made in this wonderful, lively, simple, painstakingly artful way.

Other dishes that follow this pattern include the fresh, citrus-accented pad thai ($14.95); the crunchy, sculptural little shrimp- and herb-stuffed, fried pom-poms of sa-ronge ($8.95); and the spring rolls ($8.95 with shrimp and chicken, $6.95 vegetarian), which are easily among the best in town, filled as they are with a delicate chiffonade of thinly cut lettuce and a variety of young herbs, as well as the usual suspects.

All this magic comes from the restaurant's "cooking philosophy," Naviya LaBarge explained when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. The reasoning derives from various principles of, in her words, "Oriental medicine," which involves balancing the five aspects of a dish (hot, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) so that each is equally powerful. What this means outside the realms of medicine is that all the ingredients are fresh—fresh herbs, fresh chile peppers, lots of fresh lime juice, fresh vegetables, fresh tamarind—you get the idea.

Using fresh spices, roots, chile peppers, citrus, and whatnot is actually a lot rarer in Twin Cities Thai food than you'd imagine; many places cut corners with canned spice mixes, or skip various unavailable herbs altogether. But once you taste Thai food made without those shortcuts, it's like switching from an old black-and-white television to a Technicolor film—the life and pop is almost too different to be believed.

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