Lemon Grass Thai Cuisine
8600 Edinburgh Centre Dr., Brooklyn Park
Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais
6345 Penn Ave. S., Richfield
Look to your left. Look to your right. Do you see any fellow citizens? If so, please know that these are your greatest enemies! I am not even kidding. No sooner do I write a restaurant review that tailors to your exact life, Dear Reader, than your fellow citizens start flooding my mailbox with protests: Why don't you ever write about the northern suburbs? What do you have against Richfield? Or, alternately: It's City Pages, Toots, not the Blinking Middle of Nowhere Pages! Well, it's time again for food lovers to get out their knives and set against one another, because I've got spectacularly happy news for some of you, and infuriating catastrophe for others: There are two fantastic, newish Thai places setting out plates of pure, spicy, beauteous glory right here in our fair metropolitan area. But one is in Brooklyn Park and the other is in Richfield, and if you don't like it, just kill each other and keep me out of it.
Seriously! I don't make the restaurants, I just report on them. People like Naviya and Kim LaBarge make them. Now, Naviya and Kim LaBarge are a true 21st-century, globetrotting couple. They fell in love when Naviya visited Texas on a sales call for her family's Bangkok noodle factory. One thing led to another, including holy matrimony, and after Kim accepted a job at the Bluefin Bay resort up north, Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais was born.
The new Richfield restaurant, which is the subject of this review and opened this winter, was meant to be the second restaurant in the family's new chain. Unfortunately, they lost the lease on the Grand Marais spot, and now it looks like there will be no Grand Marais branch, leaving us with one of the most oddly named restaurants in the metro. South Siders, prepare to spend the rest of your year recounting the following to all your nearest and dearest: "No, the restaurant's not in Grand Marais, it's by the foot of the water tower in Richfield. No, it's not food made with pinecones and berries. No, it's not by the Lunds, it's further down—look, I'll pick you up." And pick them up you will, because this thing is the find of the year for all those of you living south of Minnehaha Creek and north of I-494.
What will you love most at Naviya's? Probably something from the cold side of the menu, because the place assembles salads, spring rolls, and such with the exacting grace of a four-star white-tablecloth restaurant, using labor-intensive cutting styles and the most painstaking last-minute strategies to provide the biggest possible flavor.
The Thai grilled beef salad (yum nue, $11.95) is a great example of a recipe that seems very simple—just a lively, fresh lime juice and raw palm sugar dressing uniting meat and vegetables. In fact, the dish is made through a series of labor-intensive steps designed to deliver the most flavor possible. First, yellow and red bell peppers, onions, and tiny Thai chiles are hand cut into tiny micro dice, and pre-marinated in dressing with some other spices. The vegetables are then combined with minced cilantro and other herbs, jazzed up with fresh dressing, and added to a plate on which grilled strips of beef have been placed on a bed of lettuce. The overall effect is like something from a nouvelle cuisine kitchen, with artful, tiny fronds of cilantro floating in a dressing so clean, so fresh you want to pick the plate up and drink from it. It's not at all what you expect when you first step into the former fast-food restaurant shell, barely transformed with potted plants and photos of the Thai king, but I found many dishes at Naviya's Thai Kitchen of Grand Marais made in this wonderful, lively, simple, painstakingly artful way.
Other dishes that follow this pattern include the fresh, citrus-accented pad thai ($14.95); the crunchy, sculptural little shrimp- and herb-stuffed, fried pom-poms of sa-ronge ($8.95); and the spring rolls ($8.95 with shrimp and chicken, $6.95 vegetarian), which are easily among the best in town, filled as they are with a delicate chiffonade of thinly cut lettuce and a variety of young herbs, as well as the usual suspects.
All this magic comes from the restaurant's "cooking philosophy," Naviya LaBarge explained when I spoke to her on the phone for this story. The reasoning derives from various principles of, in her words, "Oriental medicine," which involves balancing the five aspects of a dish (hot, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter) so that each is equally powerful. What this means outside the realms of medicine is that all the ingredients are fresh—fresh herbs, fresh chile peppers, lots of fresh lime juice, fresh vegetables, fresh tamarind—you get the idea.
Using fresh spices, roots, chile peppers, citrus, and whatnot is actually a lot rarer in Twin Cities Thai food than you'd imagine; many places cut corners with canned spice mixes, or skip various unavailable herbs altogether. But once you taste Thai food made without those shortcuts, it's like switching from an old black-and-white television to a Technicolor film—the life and pop is almost too different to be believed.
The curries, like the elegant and thunderous coconut-milk red curry or the spry and jungly green curry, have an elegant roundness usually found around here only in Asian fusion restaurants like 20.21 or Jean Georges' Chambers Kitchen. (Both curries cost $14.95 if made with tofu, chicken, or beef; $16.95 if prepared with shrimp or various other seafoods.) Naviya's food compares favorably with either of those upscale fusion spots, and the restaurant soon may equal or surpass them in other ways: The spot just received a liquor license, and Naviya LaBarge hopes to debut a comprehensive wine program and also is about to offer organic meats to those willing to pay a $1 a plate surcharge. This is what I like to see, local Thai cooks taking after Jean-Georges and Wolfgang from the shadow of the Richfield water tower: Hooray for the free market! You never know who's going to come in from left field and try to eat your lunch.
Still, be advised that if you come in and try to eat my lunch when I'm at Lemon Grass, there's going to be a war. Why? Because Lemon Grass is a revelation. It's also a spic-and-span Thai, Lao, and Hmong restaurant in a new strip mall in Brooklyn Park. Husband and wife Souk and Vankham Moua opened it after fleeing the fearsome cost of living in San Diego, and while the restaurant is not exactly new (it's fast approaching its two-year anniversary), it's new to me, so I feel very evangelical, and I need to trumpet the news from every rooftop. My proselytizing frenzy comes from Vankham Moua's cooking, which is creative, fresh, and fiery.
The crazy duck ($7.95), for instance, is one of a series of dishes that starts with the idea of traditional larb—the cold ground-meat salad dressed with chiles and roasted-rice powder—and races off in bold directions. To make it, Moua roughly chops roasted duck and tosses it with red onions, lots of fresh mint, some cilantro, lots of lime juice, chile peppers, secret spices, and plenty of scallions, the overall effect of which is like getting knocked out by a duck of bliss—it's meaty, sweet, robust, and packs a memorable wallop both of heat and springy herbs. The duck is served with a pile of lettuce leaves and a heap of cucumber planks, to fashion lettuce cups or cucumber snacks as the mood strikes. The only problem with the stuff is that it has sisters that are exceedingly similar, and just as good, called paradise shrimp ($15.95) and insane chicken ($6.95). It's devilishly hard to choose among them. And since one order easily serves three or four, it's hard to justify ordering them all. Oh, life!
But sacrifices must be made, because there are several other dishes so good that they have to be sampled. Such as the house-made lemongrass sausages (sai oua e-sane, $4.95), which the Mouas make several times a week. They pack sausage casings with fresh pork, thinly sliced segments of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and all kinds of other peppers and spices; then they smoke them and serve the dark red beauties grilled and sliced into segments alongside a spicy soy and scallion dipping sauce. Eureka! The exceptionally floral, lemony, dusky spicing combines with the sweet, rich sausage to make something that tastes both utterly exotic and completely familiar, and it's impossible to stop munching the things till the whole plate is gone.
Lemon Grass's curries ($6.95-$8.95) are vibrant, fresh, and real. The red curry has a sweet ferocity to it, like a big dog's happy but frightening bark. The green curry has a meadow and vegetable honesty that tastes like something you could eat every day. The tom yum ($10.95) uses the often-overpowering notes of tamarind and galangal in such a way that the fierce soup burbles with other strong flavors like kaffir lime leaves, mushrooms, and shrimp, but leaves a final impression nothing short of complete harmony—and glory.
I loved almost everything I had at Lemon Grass—though there was an uninspired pad thai, and an insipid pineapple fried rice—and I feel confident that if the place were in Uptown, none of us could ever get in there. As it stands, however, it's so far north in Brooklyn Park that when one of my Uptown friends got out of his car to confront the place, he said, "So this is Canada." Our northerly location didn't seem to bother the dozen families who were happily stuffing themselves on the spicy fruits of Vankham Moua's genius—though this story might, especially if it ends up meaning they have to wait for a table.
I guess it just goes to show, there's always something to be learned about that greatest of all restaurant clichés: They say a restaurant's success depends on location, location, location, but they don't say you can't fight about it anyway.