Naviya's and On's Thai spice up the Twin Cities

Two new Thai restaurants in Linden Hills and St. Paul

A farang doesn't have to know much about the authenticity of Thai food to suspect that the paper fans decorating the walls at On's Thai Kitchen, the fake orchids on the tables, and a Muzak version of John Mayer's "Your Body Is a Wonderland" on the stereo are probably good signs. (While you wait for the appetizers to arrive, play Name That Tune with pop songs rendered barely recognizable as easy-listening instrumentals.)

Order the Pad-Phong-Ga-Lee, and the first crack of a crab claw will transport you to the serene white sand beaches of Koh Samui—except without all the touchy-feely Caucasians babbling coochie-coo to their fresh-faced local companions. On's buys live Dungeness crabs and then stir-fries them with a fragrant yellow curry that's enriched with clumps of scrambled egg and spiked with scallion and cilantro. There's no elegant way to get the goods other than pick the meat out of the crannies with your fingertips or pull the shell right up to your lips. So you're in for a spectacular, but delicious, mess. Maybe that white shirt wasn't the best idea.

The ambiance at On's may be spare, save for the religious shrine in the corner, but it's typical of ethnic restaurants along University Avenue. (The new team changed very little when they took over the space from its previous tenant, Cafe Bonxai.) The kitchen is operated by On Khumchaya, a Thai native with many years of restaurant and catering experience who recently decided to go out on her own after a stint as the head cook at her sister's restaurant, Bangkok Thai Deli, which is known as the best local replication of Thailand's food-stall culture.

Thai goes a bit upscale: Naviya's massaman curry with beef shank
Emily Utne
Thai goes a bit upscale: Naviya's massaman curry with beef shank

Location Info


Naviya's Thai Brasserie

2812 W. 43rd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55410

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Southwest Minneapolis

On's Thai Kitchen

1613 University Ave. W.
St. Paul, MN 55104

Category: Restaurant > Thai

Region: Macalester/Groveland


On's Thai Kitchen
1613 University Ave. W., St. Paul
appetizers $3-$9; entrées $7-$15

Naviya's Thai Brasserie
2812 W. 43rd St., Minneapolis
appetizers $5-$8; entrées $13-$18

On's menu reflects an authentic, home-like style of cooking that reaches to the far corners of the cuisine, well beyond the familiar spring rolls, pad Thai, and curries. One of the restaurant's most addictive offerings is Nam Thok Kor Moo Yang, an off-menu variant of the Nam Thok, or spiced meat salad with lettuce and fresh herbs. The dish is essentially a bolder version of Lao larb, made with meat that's sliced instead of ground. Chiles and roasted rice give each bite of pork a toasty, earthy warmth that sparks with hints of fish sauce, lime, minced onions, and shaved lemongrass curls. The marinade seeps into the nooks and crannies of the chewy grilled meat to give it a juicy succulence, and lettuce leaves, cilantro, and mint counterbalance with a crisp coolness. The dish is as hot and chaotic as a Bangkok street, its flavors a raucous, disorderly crowd.

Hu mok is another dish that's not easy to find in Twin Cities Thai restaurants. It might be the closest thing Southeast Asia makes to tuna casserole, a sort of savory custard of tilapia, cabbage, red curry spice, and coconut cooked in a banana leaf boat. Pad-Khana-Mu-Kroup is another dish that's easy enough to find in Thailand, though absent from most American Thai menus. But what better way to eat deep-fried pork belly than with Chinese broccoli coated in a fiery sauce?

For those who would rather stick with the staples, the ruddy pad Thai has just the right ratio of onions, bean sprouts, crushed peanuts, and shrimp, but it's a little on the sweet side. Spring rolls are a bargain, at two for $4, and taste as fresh as the first day of the season. The Massaman curry has a rich, earthy sweetness, while the red curry, glistening with droplets of orange-tinged coconut oil, is assertively hot without being overly so. (At Bangkok Thai Deli, ordering one of the equally addictive curries "not too spicy" can still require sucking on ice cubes between bites.) On's Kitchen rarely slips, except for a mango sticky rice dessert that arrived with fruit that was stringy and slightly brown—all the more reason to try the lesser-seen Khao Thom Mud, a banana leaf-wrapped alternative made with banana and beans.

On's liquor license was just approved, so beer and wine are on the way. In the meantime, diners can BYO or make do with drinking coconut juice straight from the shell. A meal at On's is surely worth running the gauntlet of the new LRT construction.

IF THE NAME NAVIYA'S THAI BRASSERIE sounds familiar, that's because chef-owner Naviya LaBarge and her husband, Kim, are on their fourth Thai restaurant in Minnesota. The two launched their first place in Grand Marais and then moved to the Twin Cities to open Naviya's Thai Kitchen and Naviya's Kalico Elephant, two lauded but now-shuttered eateries. During the year-plus they've been without a restaurant, the LaBarges considered reopening in the Midtown Global Market, but reports of Naviya's impending return were premature—Kim says they never signed a lease due to concerns about dinner traffic. The two also passed on the former Rice Paper space in Linden Hills, subsequently snapped up by chef Steven Brown, and instead chose one just down the block in a former organic clothing store.

Naviya's Thai Brasserie looks like it was born for its new neighborhood. The contemporary dining room is light-filled and serene. High ceilings expose the building's historic infrastructure, but chic suede banquettes and bold artwork make it feel modern. A glass wall near the door adds beauty and protects diners from icy blasts.

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