Baht of Course!
1835 Nicollet Ave., Mpls.; 872-1938
During off hours you can see Pat Sukhtipyaroge sitting at Royal Orchid's front window, carving. He carves carrots into pine cones, acorn squash into lace, radishes into peonies, turnips into roses, daikon into feathery orchids, rutabagas into jasmine flowers, and a cantaloupe into a sculpture like a Fabergé egg, complete with an orange peony opening up top, and leaves and a twisting peony bud carved into the green rind below, with an exquisite geometric pattern separating the two levels of peony life. Some of these carvings are nothing short of miraculous--miracles of patience, miracles of artistry, miracles of humility in that the medium decays so rapidly that a creation can be seen by hardly anyone before its life is over.
Of course, Sukhtipyaroge doesn't think they're miracles at all. "Anyone could do this with enough patience," he says. "It's simple, actually, very simple. Too many people have no patience." When he was growing up in Bangkok, he explains, fruit and vegetable carving was an art confined to the royal palace, and the only way to learn it was to be accepted into the emperor's employ. But as he puts it, "I always liked pretty stuff," so when he opened Royal Orchid in 1987 he taught himself this intricate art through experimentation.
He uses only two simple knives, a plain curved paring knife for surface work, and for deep cutting a long isosceles triangle of a blade. Sukhtipyaroge says an open rose carved from a carrot takes him about 45 minutes, while something as ornate as the cantaloupe might require as much as an hour and a half. He realizes that many customers don't even notice the carvings he displays each evening on a table near his restaurant's entrance, but as symbols--of the fact that a table at Royal Orchid is the equivalent of the tables set for royalty in Thailand; that, in other words, he treats his customers like kings--they satisfy him. He likes to tell stories about carving a watermelon orchard, or a giant turnip peony, for a customer on a special occasion like a birthday, as if there's nothing out of the ordinary about a restaurant owner who'll spend half an afternoon carving a take-home centerpiece.
What he doesn't understand is why so many people are lined up at other restaurants where the pad Thai is made with peanut butter and ketchup and the curries come out of commercial mixes--a situation he attributes to non-Thai Southeast Asian immigrants trying to cater to Minnesotan tastes. These faux Thai cooks have, in Sukhtipyaroge's telling, "borrowed much of their cooking from the Vietnamese, but they call their restaurants Thai restaurants because all over the world people know that Thai food is excellent food."
He has a personal horror of the sins of what he calls "non-Thai Thai restaurants" and criticizes them for everything from using the wrong sort of basil to the unpardonable offense of freezing and microwaving curries. Among the worst transgressions, he says, is the regularity with which establishments that call themselves Thai label cellophane-noodle-based rolls "spring rolls" when they're actually "rice-paper rolls." Real spring rolls, Sukhtipyaroge explains, are made of spring vegetables enrobed in a thick, soft skin like a Chinese chow-fun noodle and served covered with tamarind sauce. Likewise, real pad Thai is made with fresh, chopped pan-roasted peanuts and fish sauce; and real satay sauce is dominated by the tastes of chilies, shallots, shrimp paste, and tamarind water unified by pan-fried peanuts (as opposed to peanut butter cut with Tabasco and sesame oil).
Perhaps that very traditionalism is what prevents Royal Orchid from doing the money-raking business of some of its peanut butter-purveying competition. It may well be that a good number of locals have sampled a few traditional Thai favorites here, found them strange, and left, never to return. The authentic spring rolls ($3.99) are certainly strange to a palate expecting the light, clean tastes of a "rice-paper roll." Here sweet, chewy noodles filled with soft blanched bean sprouts, pork, and tofu crumbles have a squishy texture and a complicated taste that alternates between the sweet, smoky tamarind sauce outside and the piquant, salty fish sauce inside. Chicken satay ($3.99) isn't familiar charbroiled chicken-breast fillets, but small, tangled loops of batter-fried chicken threads served with an intricate sauce in which pan-fried peanuts float on a smoky, salty, tangy liquid. And pad Thai ($7.29) isn't the usual rice-noodle linguini that's been boiled to a texture of boxed macaroni-and-cheese and garnished with scallions and bean sprouts, but rather a dish laced with plenty of chili oil and fish sauce and featuring as many textural variations as a salade niçoise.
Once you accept that Royal Orchid isn't going to go down the high-fat, high-sugar path of least resistance (a path Sukhtipyaroge probably doesn't even know exists), there are some extraordinary treasures to be had. Seven Seas Red Lemon Grass Soup ($12.79), a tangy lime juice- and roasted chili-laced soup filled with big shrimp, green-lip mussels, bay scallops, and octopus, is superb--lemony and a bit spicy, with the various flavors unified into an intense whole while the flavor of each seafood ingredient is left intact and distinct. Tri-flavored Fish, which featured tilapia when I visited but which might be prepared with walleye or sea bass on other nights, was scrumptious, deep-fried so the outside was crisp as a potato chip while the inside emerged succulent and tender, and rested on a pool of a sweet-and-sour chili sauce that was utterly uncloying and wonderfully highlighted the sweet mildness of the fish. (This dish's price, by the way, may fluctuate too, depending upon which type of fish is available. The version I tasted cost $13.99.)
Another exceptional dish was the airy pineapple fried rice ($9.99), jasmine rice scented with fresh coconut milk and tossed with roasted cashews, grilled shrimp, fresh pineapple, and green onions. Fragrant, sprightly, and elegant but also quite pretty, this dish was served like a horn-of-plenty mounded over from a quarter of a pineapple shell. (Other nice tabletop touches include a tall, silvery urn filled with rice.) Another favorite was Curry Sauce Noodles ($7.99), buoyant rice noodles in a deep earthy broth laced with chunks of beef. And if you have the foresight to order Seafood Soufflé in Young Coconut ($14.99) a few days in advance, you'll be treated to a combination of mussels, shrimp, scallops, and squid tossed with rice and the aromatic brown milk of a special variety of imported Thai coconut, and baked like a casserole in the coconut shell.
Most Thai restaurants offer some rendition of "sticky rice"--glutinous rice that should be steamed with a purée of coconut meat and milk. Sadly, many offer nothing more than ordinary rice drenched with Coco Lopez, with the result not unlike munching sugar straight out of the bowl. At Royal Orchid the sticky rice is authentic, steamed in a little mold so it comes out as neat as a bun with the soothing taste of a rice pudding. Served alongside a sliced mango ($2.99), this dessert affords another glimpse of Sukhtipyaroge's skills with a knife; the mango fans out in little blocks of checkerboard precision.
As the restaurant owner sits at the window whittling fruit into magic, he talks about some Thais from Chicago who regularly make the trek up to Minneapolis just for his food. "In Thailand people would travel all day for good food, but here people will eat anywhere only because it's convenient," he says. "People tell me, 'I'd like to come here more often, but I live in St. Paul.' What's St. Paul? I come from St. Paul every single day.
"It's hard when people are so used to nontraditional Thai food. They don't seem to be too picky about what's good," Sukhtipyaroge laments. "When I used to work in computers, I made three times what I make here. Some days I think I'll never get rich on this restaurant, I'll close it down. Then I think: I'm happy, I make a lot of people happy who are looking for real Thai food. It's a personal relationship, I love to see the customers when they come back to me. That's why they come back--to see me, to have real Thai food from my family's recipes." Making ready for those customers, he carefully affixes his carrot roses to the silk rosebushes near the entryway.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.