Long Live the King
1346 LaSalle Ave., Minneapolis; (612) 332-6928
Hours: Monday-Thursday 11:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. (Friday till 11:00); Saturday 5:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m. Bar open Monday-Saturday till 1:00 a.m.
Sometimes you pull a pot off a houseplant, and find coils and coils of white root, twisting around in spirals. Sometimes those roots will grow so thick and matted they lift the plant right out of the dirt, signaling to all the plant's unhappiness. But sometimes the plant just stops growing, and sits there, patient, root-bound, waiting for the hands of fate to move it somewhere better. Move those root-bound plants to more capacious homes, and they often take off, having stored enough restless energy to propel them forward into sprouting shoots and leaves.
Restaurants get root-bound too, and I've never seen such a dramatic example of bloom after repotting as the growth that's happened since the King and I moved into its new home, behind the Hyatt on LaSalle, in the old Ciatti's and Robert Lee spot. Many of you will remember the King and I from its old incarnation on Nicollet Mall. It was a small, cramped, 15-table restaurant that opened in 1981, in the dawn-days of Minneapolis Thai food. When the original owners returned to Thailand ten years ago, it was purchased by the current owners, longtime cook Chavhivan "Bou" Haanpaa, and her husband, Gary Haanpaa. They kept it unchanged for nearly a decade, but then the longtime home of the restaurant was targeted for demolition so the new Target skyscraper could be built, and the Haanpaas took their show on the road. They finally reopened on January 27, 2000.
I visited the restaurant one sleepy February night soon after it opened, had a wonderful tureen of soup, and an otherwise chaotic meal stewarded by an incredibly confused server, and resolved to give them a few months to come into their own. I'm glad I did, because the restaurant is going gangbusters now: Recent visits found the front, flower-filled, sunken-patio area thriving, particularly during hot summer nights when it becomes the greatest secret-drink place in the Loring Park area. The wine list was attracting attention with Thai-friendly, decently priced bottles. And I got a number of dishes that left indelibly positive impressions.
The best of what I had was excellent: The two traditional Thai soups, tom ka and tom yum, are extraordinary. The tom ka is a sheer, silky coconut broth perfumed with lemon grass, gaining herbal grounding notes from fresh bamagoot--or kaffir lime--leaves, and spicy forward presence from large slices of fresh, gingerlike galangal, pounded pieces of lemon grass, and a whiff of chiles: Absolutely subtle, absolutely bold, absolutely delicious. The tom yum is just as good, the hot and sour broth offering lots of kick, but never overwhelming. Both soups come in large blue-and-white tureens, with big, pretty-handled pots of rice, and can be made with chicken ($12) or shrimp ($15). You're supposed to put rice in your bowl or cup, then ladle your soup over it. (That's why the soups are so potently flavored, because they're so intense you don't need much of them to feel satiated. I'd say one tureen easily makes a starter course for as many as six people.)
A couple of other dazzling starters were the spicy steak salad ($7), a combination of thinly sliced beef, decoratively cut cucumber slices, fresh chiles, onions, cilantro, cabbage, and firm tomato, marinated in a sour and sweet citrus-fish-sauce-touched dressing. It was so sizzling and surprising it was like eating sparks. Even a dish as potentially banal as curry puffs ($7.50) shines at the King and I: Here homemade sweet pastry half-moons are filled with cubes of curried potato and chicken, making them both sweet and savory. Items straight from the deep-fryer were wonderful, too: A plate of battered, deep-fried fresh oyster mushrooms ($5.50) was light, tender, sweet, and completely addictive. Dip the feathery bits in the accompanying, sauce of chopped herbs, chiles, and sweetened vinegar and you'll be astounded at the joy available in a serving of mushrooms. Calamari ($7) was also sweet, greaseless, and light. The only lackluster item I encountered in the appetizer menu was the toong tong ($7) dumpling stuffed with ground pork and shrimp: the things were adorable, hand-tied little sacks sashed with chives and boasting crispy, festive heads. Unfortunately, they were very bland.
Mercifully, none of the entrées I tried succumbed to that pitfall: Pad thai was freshly made, the noodles springy, the peanuts crisp, the bean sprouts crunchy. The King and I allows you to put any of the following in your pad thai: chicken, sliced beef, pork, barbecued pork, fresh tofu, fried tofu, mock duck, shrimp, scallops, calamari rings, or vegetables. Pad thai with one item generally costs $11, though it's $14 for seafood. Oddly, prices can ramp up steeply if you want to add in more items. You can get pad thai with three additions for $21, though I never would. At $21, I'd want it to get up and sing. The best version I tried contained fresh tofu, which nicely highlighted the fresh and salty aspects of the dish.
One of the most pleasant things about the new incarnation of the King and I is the restaurant's greatly expanded seafood list. This is now the only Thai restaurant I know of in the metro area where you can regularly find walleye, fresh scallops, crab claws, and an ever-changing fish of the day. Always available, a large, deep-fried, nicely crusty walleye fillet ($18) dressed with sweet, creamy red curry, was an unequivocal hit. Everyone loved the tender, flaky fish in its rich, two-layer cloak of breading and curry sauce. The most expensive dishes on the menu are the $27 seafood platters. I tried the pad ped ta lay, a nicely woody, brisk red curry uniting Thai eggplant, calamari, pink curls of shrimp, crab claws, chunks of walleye, and, especially good, tender medallions of scallop. (To get the best of this dish for less, consider No. 35, pad num prik gaeng dang, a red curry available with scallops for $15.)
The med ma-mueng himmapan is a light combination of cashews and onions, seared and combined in a clear broth over the meat of your choice; with scallops ($15) the combination was nearly ethereal. The biggest surprise was perhaps the med ma-mueng prik pow, described on the menu as a roasted hot-pepper sauce with onions, peanuts, and cashews. I expected the sauce to be overpoweringly fiery, but in fact it was almost like a homemade Mexican mole, getting a depth of flavor from silky roast, ground nuts, and bright notes from the peppers. I had it on sliced beef ($12) and it was unforgettably good. Even desserts, such as an excellent coconut-banana cake ($7), which tasted a bit like a macaroon and was dressed up with coconut sorbet and a buttery caramel sauce, were very good.
Astoundingly, the wine list is good. And not just good, but Thai-food designed, festive, and reasonably priced. In Minnesota, this qualifies as something of a miracle, so pay heed: There are light, acidic, fruity whites like Bonny Doon Pacific Rim riesling ($6.75 a glass, $23 a bottle); dry, acidic, rounder whites like Château du Montfort Vouvray ($7.75/$28); smart, crisp rosés like the one from Château Routas ($6.25/$20); and a bunch of reds, nearly all of which were chosen to stand up to the super-saturated flavors of Thai sauces; there's even a good Champagne, Jacquesson Fils, for $42. If you're not a wine drinker you'll still find a top-notch beverage here. Beers run the gamut from cheap domestic bottles to Summit on tap to Asian and European imports. The full bar boasts everything from sipping tequilas to 21-year-old single-malt scotches to signature martinis ($6.75). There's even a selection of fresh-made nonalcoholic smoothies ($5.25) in flavors like coconut and passion fruit, which are served, daiquiri style, with fruit garnish and a paper umbrella. Sad to say, the wines and tippity-top-shelf whiskeys, cognacs, and cordials don't get happy hour pricing.
In fact, my quibbles with the restaurant were few, and the main one is particularly odd: The space is permeated with a strange, wet-cigarette smell. Perhaps better ventilation in the bar would help. Additionally, few of the servers I found could really talk authoritatively about the menu. Many tended to perceive the place as an upscale Leann Chin, pushing the least adventurous dishes, like the cream-cheese rolls ($4). I imagine people who aren't comfortable with a Thai menu would be a bit at sea here.
The lunch buffet ($7.95) when I tried it wasn't very good; most of the items were steam-table pallid. Co-owner Gary Haanpaa says the number of items on the buffet will soon increase from five to seven, and will always include a couple of vegetarian items. He points out that his restaurant is only a longish block from the new Target tower that displaced him, and hopes that the restaurant will soon be getting the business-lunch crowd it used to have on Nicollet. If that happens, the buffet will doubtless improve, since the key to any buffet is frequency of replenishment.
The one big problem nowadays, says Haanpaa, is that no one is using King and I's free valet parking. "It's not terrible to park down here, but it's not easy either," he says. "We know that people from Plymouth or Eden Prairie are downtown-leery, so we wanted a situation where they could just pull up and get out of their car, and enter the restaurant. We've got space for 150 cars. Most nights we don't even park 30. I guess sometimes you can't even give something away." Well, true and not true: The half-price-drink happy hour, weekdays from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m., is drawing quite a group of fans. (There are also two-for-one drinks Wednesday night in the lounge, from 9:00 p.m. to midnight.)
So, why can you can hand out half-price drinks pretty easily when free parking spots go begging? I'm guessing it's because the people who know and like Thai food and good wine and beer lists are the same people who possess advanced urban parking skills, and it's going to take a couple years of word of mouth before this gem starts drawing the big parking-phobic masses. In the meantime, just think of those all those empty parking spaces as physical evidence of room to grow.
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.