Eight colorful little cups are perfectly apportioned before me, samples of toasted coconut, green chile, peanuts, die-cut fresh ginger, dried shrimp, onion, little jewel-cut lime with the skin still affixed, and a sticky, sugary, complex brown sauce.
Beside all of it sit floppy green Chinese broccoli leaves. I pile a bit of everything inside a leaf, including the lime with peel and all, and fold, attempting to make a bite-sized packet. The result is a rocketship of flavor and texture, a coming together of acidity, nuttiness, funk, heat, crunch, and chew. It’s easily the most flavorful bite I’ve had in many months, and if I had been blindfolded, there’s no way you could have convinced me that this was skyway fare.
Miang Kham is just one of the unexpected Thai dishes you’ll find at this skyway spot, Pad Ga Pow. It’s the effort of Joel and Suthisa Krupinsi, the latter a daughter of Amnuai Khumchaya, better known as just “On” of lauded Thai restaurant On’s Kitchen.
Suthisa’s journey has taken her from the food markets of Bangkok to her mother’s Minneapolis kitchen, to corporate accounting, to motherhood, and now to her own professional kitchen. She’s led a life as varied and complex as that dynamite blast of Miang Kham.
“Oh my God!” Suthisa squeals as if her move to Minnesota were yesterday. “It was so cold!” She remembers it being early springtime, with little white snowdrifts still on the ground.
“We didn’t have coats.” The heat of Bangkok was the only climate the 13-year-old had known.
Another thing she had known: working in the market with her family, where each individual family member had a stall selling something different, like curry paste, galangal, or fish. At the end of the market day, they would all come together and make a meal.
Small Suthisa was put in charge of mortar and pestle, a difficult and sweat-inducing job she hated at the time, but is grateful for now.
“We got the coconuts from the tree and the fish out of the canal. It was the best way to eat. I took it for granted until I came here,” she says.
When Suthisa’s mother, On, arrived in Minnesota, she went into the cooking business with her sister, who owned Bangkok Thai Deli, the Thai dining institution on University Avenue in St. Paul. But On was a force unto herself and needed her own kitchen. She moved down the road, and began a business that has been banging ever since. So banging, that Suthisa left her corporate job to join her mom.
“I thought, it’s not that hard. And I only have one mom, of course I had to help her,” Suthisa remembers. But the restaurant world is rigorous. And it was hard. Evenings and weekends with her husband were a thing of the past.
What was she to do? Get her own restaurant, of course. She had been bitten by the restaurant bug, and corporate America could no longer cut it.
“I didn’t feel like I could be myself there.”
Now she’s doing her own restaurant, on her terms, her way. Her mom asked, “If you want a restaurant, why don’t you just take over mine?”
But, savvy woman that she is, Suthisa knew that a skyway operation meant evenings and weekends back with her husband, and now, their own daughter. Which of course means, Miang Kham for skyway walkers!
At initial glance, Pad Ga Pow appears as so many other skyway restaurants do. There is a line of steam wells piled high with stuff, where you point hungrily and get it all scooped into a clamshell for under 10 bucks. Choose a combo of one, two, or three items plus rice, starting at $6.99 and going up a couple of bucks with each additional item.
Those items could include five-spice pork, a bewitching cauldron of fatty pork shoulder bubbling in a sauce so fragrant you can smell it on the street outside. Or it could be an exquisite green curry, complex as perfume, made with the thickest part of the coconut milk, the way Suthisa prefers it from her aunt’s recipe back home. It could be their namesake, the Pad Ga Pow, which Suthisa tries to make with Holy Basil whenever she can; the powerfully fragrant herb is difficult to come by in Minnesota, and she combs the markets for it.
“I always get so excited when I can find it,” she says. But even when she’s using the ordinary Thai Basil, the dish is herbaceous as an entire garden, green as grass, and fiery as your mouth can withstand.
All of this makes for some of the most imaginative, soulful cooking available in Minneapolis, much less tucked away in a plain skyway space in the LaSalle building.
But the truly special secret here is that Suthisa (she’s the lone cook, while Joel runs the front-of-house operations) will happily cook you anything off of a nearly 80-item menu that’s taped up on the sneeze guard, which you could easily miss.
Miang Kham is only the beginning. There is whole fish bathed in red curry, crispy soft-shell crabs, and fresh young coconut drinks. Find the full catalog of Thai salads you know and love, and many you don’t know but will surely love once you’ve tried them. Yum Woon Sen is a tangle of slippery glass noodles, fat pork, and al dente nubbins of butterflied shrimp, with chile lime vinaigrette binding it all. A green crown of herbs and a shower of peanuts finishes things. It’s like a wonderful little world in a takeout box.
An appetizer of pork neck, or Kor Moo Yang, is fatty curls of meat served with a lettuce wedge, more herbs, and a sauce potent with chile, fish sauce, and toasted rice powder. Khao Moo-Daeng, or red barbeque pork, is a molded dome of sticky rice shrouded in red-tinged pork, surrounded by a lagoon of red sauce that just about leans into syrup territory. A perfectly cooked hard-boiled egg sits at the edge of the bowl, cut in half with a decorative edge. A light ginger and scallion-laden broth arrives alongside as a palate cleanser. It boggles the mind that it cost under $10 and hit the table in minutes.
Suthisa doesn’t use recipes; she cooks by taste and memory. She’s a whirling dervish in that kitchen. You have to see it to believe it. She’s been teaching Joel a few things — “I still have to taste, but he does very good” — and no, her mother doesn’t come to their restaurant.
“She’s too busy to eat anywhere else!”
Luckily, she taught Suthisa almost everything she knows.
Pad Ga Pow
811 Lasalle Ave. #207, Minneapolis