Whether used in as a positive descriptor or, less frequently, as a derogatory adjective, the word "authentic" is thrown around a lot in conversations about Krungthep Thai, the Eat Street spot next to Pancho Villa that was once Seafood Palace, a Chinese restaurant with its own small but loyal following. When sorting the gold-star winners from the lower achievers, Krungthep seems to be measured, like many other Thai restaurants in the Twin Cities, by its level of authenticity. But what measuring stick are we using when we talk about authenticity? Is it the heritage of the chefs or the ingredients they use? Is there a Platonic ideal for khao phat? Perhaps it's the chef's tools or techniques that we expect to deliver the goods. Whatever the case, if we want our Thai food to pass some litmus test, Krungthep does so with flying colors.
It's a snowy weekend night, somewhat late for diners and tough for parking, which would explain the unoccupied tables at Krungthep, the new Minneapolis annex of St. Paul's Bangkok Thai Deli. We're met with hot and fragrant Jasmine tea and even hotter food at the suggestion of our server, a real-life version of Netflix's "Suggestions for You," who bases her answers to each of our detailed questions on the food we have already ordered. "You have the fish patties [an appetizer bursting with lemongrass, garlic, and basil but well-rounded with an almost sausage-like texture, though we expected something more like a crab cake] and the curried fish in banana leaf [a steamed dish containing mousse-like white fish with chiles and the clean finish of Thai basil], so you should keep going with the fish," she tells us, genuinely interested in giving us a full experience. "If you see something you like up there," she says, pointing to a list of fresh seafood on a dry erase board, "we can do it five or six ways."
This simple act is demonstrative not only of Krungthep's lack of pretense but of its malleability when it comes to meeting the needs of its customers. When I talked to manager April Chiem, she let me know that while they are presently using Bangkok Thai Deli's exact menu, they plan to "have a new menu just for Krungthep, with more seafood and other Thai specialties." That is both a nod to the clientele they have gained from their sister restaurant and a gesture to those saddened by the loss of Seafood Palace.
With owner Glen Yamthongkam and his sister Pranee working the kitchen, producing the dishes they learned from their parents and grandparents, all the specialties we sampled were very special indeed. More standard fare like small, tubular egg rolls and fresh, herb-forward spring rolls were excellent, but the keep-them-coming-back offerings were welcome surprises: puff-pastry-wrapped spiced ground pork and water chestnuts; whole bone-in, panko-kissed chicken wings stuffed with silver thread noodles, pork, and a mixture of crunchy vegetables; and the aforementioned fish patties and curried fish in banana leaf.
Moving on to entrées was a bit daunting, given the more than 200 menu options. Our server asked about vegans, vegetarians, and nut allergies before helping us choose some of her favorite, less-ordered dishes, including the soft-shell crab with curry powder (Chiem also named this as an overlooked but beloved dish), the walleye with Thai herbs (which arrived head-on, deep-fried, and dressed with clear-your-sinuses chiles, basil, sprouts, and toasted cashews), and the sweet but still ridiculously hot green curry with scallops. We were sufficiently forewarned about the high Scoville level of these dishes, but ordered them "hot" nonetheless. I can anticipate the needling internet commenters who will say it's just our mild Minnesotan palate that tolerates little more than ketchup, but I have eaten vindaloo in Scotland (don't judge, they have a higher population of east Indian immigrants than we do people from Thailand) and singe-your-lips chakalaka in South Africa, and this was hot. All the extra napkins we asked for weren't to wipe our fingers clean from picking apart the tri-flavored lobster (messy, but amazingly sweet with fiery oils and a tomato-based sauce), but to dab our faces like a devastated Blanche DuBois. We got major vapors from the crunchy stir-fried seeds that flecked the snow peas in the pad prik, which we ordered with a special egg tofu that was delicate, luxurious, and cut into small, indented rounds.
On a different visit, we did observe a slight difference in the interpretation of spice level. The red curry with roasted duck, a classic dish that is often either very greasy or full of bones (neither was true at Krungthep), which we ordered with "medium" spice, came out very mild, but the red variety does tend to be less spicy than the green. For any level of spice, Krungthep smartly offers several cooling drinks (their liquor license is pending) to combat the heat. We downed perfumey hibiscus juice and delicious Thai iced tea, sweetened with condensed and coconut milk, but it was the pure coconut juice, served in the whole fruit, that really wowed us. The initial taste is a little thick and salty, but within seconds your whole mouth is overcome with that just-ate-a-macaroon feeling that calms all the senses and opens your palate for the next bite.
To finish dinner, don't turn to the standard mango and sticky rice. It's by no means bad, but Krungthep has so much more to offer. Ambrosial taro root custard is served warm with tiny spoons to encourage taking delicate bites, but you won't want to. Ours was cleaned out before the three incarnations of sweetened egg yolk dessert were brought to the table. We got a sampling of Foi-tong (strings), Tong-yod (spheres), and Tong-yip (flowers, or cups)—all from the same base but made with different techniques. "I feel like kids would love to eat this," said my dining companion, wrestling with the cheddar-colored, buoyant strings on her cocktail fork. True. We did too.
It makes sense, and is a mark of our standards, that we value this nebulous "authenticity" in our Thai food. Luckily for our culinary landscape, Minnesota has a dense population of Laotian and Thai people living here and producing amazing food. So let the debates about authenticity rage on. I don't mind, because I will be happily enjoying bright and spicy little nuggets of Thai sausage and silky taro custard. The sounds of the arguing will be drowned out by the lullaby of my own chewing, and, in the case of Krungthep Thai, the occasional mopping of my brow.