Naviya's and On's Thai spice up the Twin Cities
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.
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.
In a nod toward its neighbors, the restaurant has dispensed with palate-challenging ingredients like durian and, to satisfy local politics (it's across the street from the former Linden Hills Co-Op), cooks with only naturally raised meats. There are obvious comparisons to be made with Rice Paper, which recently moved to roomier Edina digs, as Naviya's presents a more upscale experience than most of its Southeast Asian contemporaries. The brasserie offers a wine and beer list with several organic options and has steeper prices ($7 for spring rolls), though the $10 lunch specials offer a generous discount and include a choice of soup or salad.
Naviya's pad Thai costs $16, but it's a commendable execution that comes in a huge, sharable portion. The noodles are light and springy, and not at all greasy. The veggies are crunchy, the flavors subtly sweet and smoky. The cooking at Naviya's is done à la minute, and dishes are served hot out of the wok, so the flavors and textures pop.
Familiar green and red curries have the jungle funk associated with stewing in the humidity of tropical heat, and their spiciness, though not overwhelming, isn't meek. Thom-kha-gai soup offers chicken and vegetables in a milky coconut broth with a tart, lime tang that jump-starts the salivary glands. Vegetables in the Rama Thai stay crisp and are specked with char, but the chunky peanut paste could use more sweetness or heat to cut through its thickness. At her first restaurants, Naviya LaBarge's cooking hewed closer to Thai traditions, but this time around she's given herself more creative license. That's why you'll see non-Thai vegetables like cauliflower in the thom-kha-gai soup, the sweet and sour stir fry, and the Rama Thai during the winter months.
The flavors at Naviya's are perhaps not haunting enough for foodies to drive across town, but the restaurant will surely be an asset to the neighborhood. The overall dining experience is quite pleasant and might be improved with just a few small changes. The first regards the small workspace set up on one of the tables behind the host's stand that's visible to those seated in the back of the restaurant. During one visit, the ad hoc office contained just a laptop and printer—no big deal. Surely there are numerous business tasks to be attended to every day, and one wouldn't be expected to pay bills on the stovetop. But during another meal, the table was stacked with piles of paperwork and the adjacent banquette piled with miscellaneous clutter. It made the restaurant feel cozy, like it was an extension of the LaBarge's home, but part of the reason we go to restaurants is that we don't want look at our own messes, much less someone else's.
A few of the servers at Naviya's don't always explain the menu as well as they might, either due to shyness or lack of familiarity. For example, if a guest requests hot tea, why just bring the standard cup of green without offering the restaurant's multi-page beverage menu that enthusiastically explains the extensive tea collection? Lovely pots of white tea can be had for roughly the same cost as a basic jasmine, and connoisseurs can select such bewitching brews as a 60-year-old, cave-aged Pu'er tea that costs $40 a pot!
Naviya's plans to increase its seating this summer with a few sidewalk tables, but the place will still surely fill up quickly with all the famished lake-walkers. If you can't get a seat, Naviya's Thai fare would also make a great takeout picnic.
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