Karta offers Thai with a smile
Being hungry, aimless, and short on cash isn't such a bad combo if you also happen to be cruising down Central Avenue in the Windom Park neighborhood of northeast Minneapolis. This small but mighty stretch is so chock full of unique cheap eats, you can actually get overwhelmed with options. Starting at the south end, there's Indian groceries (a best-kept secret for inexpensive bulk spices), a halal meat market and attached Pakistani restaurant with a very reasonable lunch buffet, and of course the underrated football-shaped pizza from Crescent Moon, a great Afghani bakery with huge portions and lots of meat. Moving on, the middle section features some outstanding, authentic Mexican eateries, including Durango Bakery, a direct-to-my-mouth supplier of chocolate-filled, cinnamon sugar-dappled churros and gigantic sweet empanadas with pineapple and vanilla creme. Further north, right before you reach the city limits and hit Columbia Heights (more good Indian restaurants there), is the grandaddy of them all — if "all" means ethnic restaurants in this neighborhood — Holy Land, which these days looks like a cross between an industrial complex and a castle and occupies an entire city block. That middle section, the part between Lowry and 24th Avenue, is also becoming a mini-district for another type of global cuisine: Thai.
Now open for business in the space that many Windom residents will remember as San Pablito, and way fewer might remember as the short-lived B.Z.A. India's Kitchen, is Karta Thai, a friendly but frill-free, 40-or-so-seat restaurant excelling in riskier Thai dishes like its fresh and flaky whole walleye fillet and multilayered, addictively savory Gang Ped duck curry with pea pods, pineapple, and a heap of anise-y basil. The good stuff really was tremendously good, especially considering that almost every dish was $10 or less, but where Karta tended to disappoint was with the more standard (maybe even Americanized?) dishes, like a too-sweet Pad Thai wrapped in a flavorless egg omelet and an unappealing bowl of overcooked rice noodle soup with murky, funky-in-a-bad-way beef broth.
All right, so maybe it's too soon to deem this area an actual district, but it's worth noting that another Thai place, Sen Yai Sen Lek, is right across the street from Karta. If nothing else, that will help you locate Karta's unassuming storefront, which, despite a new neon sign in the window and a daily-special easel on the street, all but completely blends into the surroundings. On Karta's purple awning, the faded stick-on lettering has been peeled off, but you can still easily make out the words "tortas," "burritos," and "tacos." That said, as soon as you enter the doors and see the very open, galley-style kitchen, the aroma of chiles, lime, basil, coconut milk, and fish sauce are a clear reminder that you are about to enjoy some serious Thai food. And you're in capable hands. Karta's manager Srinuan Khunsri has worked in Twin Cities Thai restaurants, including Sawatdee and Sen Lai Sen Yek, for more than a decade and definitely has a handle on the tastes of the local market.
We started with made-to-order spring rolls, stuffed with an excellent ratio of shrimp to noodles, herbs, and sprouts. (Shrimp is the standard-order protein, but we were told they'll substitute mock duck, tofu, or extra veggies on request.) We also tried some bizarre deep-fried appetizers called "Golden Karta Special," which looked vaguely like some ocean creature but in fact was peppery ground chicken wrapped with squiggles of thin noodles, fried until they were crunchy, golden, and physically difficult to consume (though they were quite tasty). We had a lovely, traditional Thai salad of mortar-and-pestled spicy green papaya with peanuts and dried baby shrimp better known as Som Tum. Other salads proved less interesting, like the Yum Neua, with slices of too-chewy grilled beef, hard tomatoes, and lettuce, though the dish was saved somewhat by a good helping of cilantro and a punchy, herby, lime-based dressing.
Entrees varied from simple and one-dimensional to balanced and stunningly complex (as with the previously mentioned walleye and Gang Ped duck). But what they all had in common was generous portions, which is great because curries only get better when they are given time to let their flavors mingle, date, and marry. To speed along that process, I ordered the green curry, hot (a 4 on Karta's 1 to 5 scale). It was sweet, thinner than most of the red or green curries we see around town, but still sinus-draining, with all the veggies cooked to a perfect tender-crisp. Much lighter in flavor and sauce concentration were the Pak Khing with celery, onions, straw mushrooms, and a delicate, gingery sauce, and the Pad Puk, with mixed veggies and a more umami-garlicky sauce. We preferred both the Pak Khing and the Pad Puk over the Pad Thai. Memorable for the wrong reasons was the Pra-rahm Karta special, a heavy-handed peanut curry with steamed veggies and perfectly tender tail-on shrimp that was seasoned well, but after a few bites ate like a plate of melted chunky peanut butter.
Some things could be polished up a little bit, including the restaurant's interior look and the ventilation system (we did visit on particularly hot days, but with the heat from the kitchen and all the other bodies in this space, a big floor fan wasn't quite cutting it). But really, who cares? If the food is good, that's what will keep people coming back. No one has ever said of a restaurant, "Well, the food is really boring and rough around the edges, but I keep going back for the art on the walls and the awesome furniture." Beyond the food, Karta has many other touches that bring an involuntary smile to your face: the incredibly delicate, paper crane-looking creations made out of carrots that adorn the serving plates; the fact that someone always cheerily says "Hello!" and "Thank you!" when you arrive and leave; and most of all, the check at the end of your meal, which tells you you're shelling out about $15 for your share of appetizers, entrees, and mango sticky rice, and you still have enough to take home. In fact, the only involuntary smile that can contend is the one that happens when you open the fridge and remember that you have Thai leftovers for lunch.
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