The elegance smacks you straight in the face the instant you step into Lat14. The opulence. Golden Valley's converted Perkins oft-mistaken for a Red Lobster shows no evidence of Cheddar Bay Biscuits, and upon entering the eye is met with fresh flowers accenting gleaming hardwood tables, airy ceilings, and deep plush booths.
For weekday lunch service, the place is packed, with professionals from nearby General Mills and Kare 11 campuses dressed in button-ups and showy shoes filling just about every table. A red-lipstick smile greets me through the crowd and asks if I might squeeze into a spot at the bar, but there’s a businessman with a wide spread, knees splayed like a spatchococked chicken, and I’d rather not muscle in to get my elbows propped up against the dishmats. (Not opulent!)
Instead, I decide to wait 10 minutes, scanning the menu and appreciating its simplicity, with just enough items to cover all tastes but not so many that corner-cube Gary and I will hem and haw too much about what we want to eat. Soon, I’m seated at the chef’s table: a sturdy hunk of wood placed next to the open kitchen (which fits right in with my vouyer tendencies). A server in a neat apron appears and takes my order: drunken noodles with tofu and a ginger mocktail.
The kitchen moves with an efficient hush, no panicked shouts or clanging of pots. They seem unbothered by the packed-house lunch rush, and a few smiles flash between cooks.
“Part of the job is entertaining and hospitality,” chef Ann Ahmed tells me later. “I tell them to look up—it can be easy to hide, but with an open kitchen we don’t have that luxury. Look up and see who you are cooking for and serve with interest.”
The ginger mocktail arrives with a floral paper straw. It’s subtle, merely hinting at ginger, when I prefer a full wallop of ginger throat burn. I wished for a Jamacian ginger beer and politely sipped it for the rest of the meal. Within 10 minutes the lunch special arrived: glossy brown sauce slick noodles on the right, lime green cabbage slaw on the left, with a grapefruit and orange slice tucked in the middle and a cream cheese wonton for punctuation.
After setting down the dish, the server asks if I want chopsticks (naw) and hot sauce (heck yes!), and quickly reappears bearing a square porcelain dish filled with both a deep red Chinese-style chili oil with spice sediment thick on the bottom and a pale green sauce, bright with green thai chilis and a bit of lime.
Everything in sight was so pretty, from the red-and-green cabbage slaw to the golden-brown wontons. The drunken noodles are smooth and cooked to a perfect toothy chew, the sauce slightly sweet with a touch of that deeply satisfying sea creature funk. The cabbage slaw was freshly made—the proof is in the crunch—and offered a nice acidic contrast to the soft, rich noodles.
The wonton was a bit overthought, with a flaky dough that almost reminded me of puff pastry and a cheese filling that offered a bit of garlic and onion, but I tend to prefer my wontons traditionally bland, which is silly, I understand. Regardless, the entire meal was a tightly executed plate that hit all corners of my tongue, and I enjoyed munching down the grapefruit and orange slices as a refreshing and simple dessert that refreshed my mouth after all the flavors.
It’s very clear that this restaurant is an investment, from the impeccably designed interior to the attentive waitstaff to the focused energy oozing from the open kitchen. I spy a label on the industrial rice cooker reading STICKY RICE. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that a woman armed with a label maker is typically detail driven and intentional. I can just see the walk-in cooler in my head, perfectly stacked with blue tape labels and dates on every sauce tub, produce box, and pork hock.
Chef Ahmed will continue her career development this fall at the James Beard Foundation's Women Entrepreneurial Leadership program, though I doubt she could use more pointers—she’s already running two successful restaurants. (Lemongrass Thai in Brooklyn Park is her other project.) I ate an exceptional brunch at Lat14 earlier this spring, with perfectly executed bowls of red curry broth and a truly exceptional chicken soup with hunks of Youtiao (long Chinese donuts) dropped in.
The culinary skills of the staff are exceptional and the hospitality is warm and inviting. The only thing that is lacking is extending an explicit welcome to vegetarians and vegans. Once the plant-based options are rolling, it’ll be a perfect place for an omnivore date.
Lat14 Asian Eatery
8815 Seventh Ave. N., Golden Valley