Great Thai Outliers

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

The curries, like the elegant and thunderous coconut-milk red curry or the spry and jungly green curry, have an elegant roundness usually found around here only in Asian fusion restaurants like 20.21 or Jean Georges' Chambers Kitchen. (Both curries cost $14.95 if made with tofu, chicken, or beef; $16.95 if prepared with shrimp or various other seafoods.) Naviya's food compares favorably with either of those upscale fusion spots, and the restaurant soon may equal or surpass them in other ways: The spot just received a liquor license, and Naviya LaBarge hopes to debut a comprehensive wine program and also is about to offer organic meats to those willing to pay a $1 a plate surcharge. This is what I like to see, local Thai cooks taking after Jean-Georges and Wolfgang from the shadow of the Richfield water tower: Hooray for the free market! You never know who's going to come in from left field and try to eat your lunch.

 

Still, be advised that if you come in and try to eat my lunch when I'm at Lemon Grass, there's going to be a war. Why? Because Lemon Grass is a revelation. It's also a spic-and-span Thai, Lao, and Hmong restaurant in a new strip mall in Brooklyn Park. Husband and wife Souk and Vankham Moua opened it after fleeing the fearsome cost of living in San Diego, and while the restaurant is not exactly new (it's fast approaching its two-year anniversary), it's new to me, so I feel very evangelical, and I need to trumpet the news from every rooftop. My proselytizing frenzy comes from Vankham Moua's cooking, which is creative, fresh, and fiery.

The crazy duck ($7.95), for instance, is one of a series of dishes that starts with the idea of traditional larb—the cold ground-meat salad dressed with chiles and roasted-rice powder—and races off in bold directions. To make it, Moua roughly chops roasted duck and tosses it with red onions, lots of fresh mint, some cilantro, lots of lime juice, chile peppers, secret spices, and plenty of scallions, the overall effect of which is like getting knocked out by a duck of bliss—it's meaty, sweet, robust, and packs a memorable wallop both of heat and springy herbs. The duck is served with a pile of lettuce leaves and a heap of cucumber planks, to fashion lettuce cups or cucumber snacks as the mood strikes. The only problem with the stuff is that it has sisters that are exceedingly similar, and just as good, called paradise shrimp ($15.95) and insane chicken ($6.95). It's devilishly hard to choose among them. And since one order easily serves three or four, it's hard to justify ordering them all. Oh, life!

But sacrifices must be made, because there are several other dishes so good that they have to be sampled. Such as the house-made lemongrass sausages (sai oua e-sane, $4.95), which the Mouas make several times a week. They pack sausage casings with fresh pork, thinly sliced segments of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and all kinds of other peppers and spices; then they smoke them and serve the dark red beauties grilled and sliced into segments alongside a spicy soy and scallion dipping sauce. Eureka! The exceptionally floral, lemony, dusky spicing combines with the sweet, rich sausage to make something that tastes both utterly exotic and completely familiar, and it's impossible to stop munching the things till the whole plate is gone.

Lemon Grass's curries ($6.95-$8.95) are vibrant, fresh, and real. The red curry has a sweet ferocity to it, like a big dog's happy but frightening bark. The green curry has a meadow and vegetable honesty that tastes like something you could eat every day. The tom yum ($10.95) uses the often-overpowering notes of tamarind and galangal in such a way that the fierce soup burbles with other strong flavors like kaffir lime leaves, mushrooms, and shrimp, but leaves a final impression nothing short of complete harmony—and glory.

I loved almost everything I had at Lemon Grass—though there was an uninspired pad thai, and an insipid pineapple fried rice—and I feel confident that if the place were in Uptown, none of us could ever get in there. As it stands, however, it's so far north in Brooklyn Park that when one of my Uptown friends got out of his car to confront the place, he said, "So this is Canada." Our northerly location didn't seem to bother the dozen families who were happily stuffing themselves on the spicy fruits of Vankham Moua's genius—though this story might, especially if it ends up meaning they have to wait for a table.

I guess it just goes to show, there's always something to be learned about that greatest of all restaurant clichés: They say a restaurant's success depends on location, location, location, but they don't say you can't fight about it anyway.

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