I know it seems hard to imagine, what with Thai restaurants sprouting up like rice stalks in a paddy, but back in the '70s, before Supenn Harrison launched her Sawatdee empire, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bowl of green curry around these parts. When I first started eating Thai food in the Twin Cities, most southeast Asian restaurants were humble little family-run spots like Ruam Mit Thai in downtown St. Paul; Chino Latino's "Cheaper than a Bangkok brothel" billboards wouldn't arrive for at least a decade.
Today, it seems Minneapolis has as many Thai restaurants as Thailand has beaches. Harrison's Sawatdee kingdom has spread as far as St. Cloud—a place whose most notable restaurant has booths that look like Conestoga wagons. These days, if you're craving pad Thai, you can pick some up at SuperTarget.
But you'd be better off bypassing the bull's-eye and ordering Thailand's beloved noodle dish at the new Roat Osha restaurant in Uptown. The noodles are light, bouncy bands that don't clump together (a pad Thai pet peeve of mine) and are seasoned with a warm blend of spices that blows over the tongue like a dry desert wind. Compared to my ideal pad Thai, Roat Osha's seemed a little sweet, but nothing an extra squeeze of a lime wedge couldn't temper.
Roat Osha, which translates roughly to "food for a king," arose seemingly overnight on the site of the former Uptown Sawatdee. (In the process, we lost the tacky curved glass atrium, a relic of an erstwhile Arby's-wannabe Rax, which had blighted the neighborhood since the 1980s.) Somsap Hein and her husband Steve ran the Uptown Sawatdee franchise for years, and after recently buying out the last of their partners, they decided to remake the restaurant in the same vein as Tum Rup Thai, the other Uptown restaurant they opened in 2005 at the corner of West Lake Street and Fremont.
At both restaurants, Somsap, a native of northern Thailand, serves as executive chef, and Steve oversees management. Their experience with Tum Rup Thai has taught them the secret to restaurant success in Uptown. When they opened the glam Tum Rup Thai—with its sparkling glass windows, dark wood, and dramatic red-and-gold color scheme—it quickly out-buzzed their old Sawatdee. The Heins figured out that prospering in Uptown means creating a date-worthy eatery, with a formula that goes something like this:
Take one part ambiance... The space should be swanky enough that you don't have to worry about getting yesterday's peanut sauce on your sleeve. The restaurant should have a fun, playful attitude, which can be expressed through puns on staffers' T-shirts (in Roat Osha's case, they say "Wok Star"). If the lighting is dim enough for a discreet smooch, so much the better.
...add two parts alcohol... In Uptown, a full liquor license is necessary just to keep up with the competition. Clever (or cringe-worthy, depending on your sense of humor) drink names—"Thai One On," why don't you—are often used as a point of differentiation.
...combine with worldly cuisine, and serve. Uptowners don't like to think of themselves as people whose kitchens contain nothing but beer, ketchup, and frozen dinners—even though they probably are. When trying to project the image of a progressive, global sophisticate, meatloaf and hoagies aren't going to cut it.
Whatever the precise recipe, Roat Osha seems to have it down. One night, I watched three separate dates cycle through the adjacent table over the course of a few hours. Even with Chiang Mai Thai in Calhoun Square and Amazing Thailand just down the block, not to mention Tum Rup, it seems Uptown's appetite for Thai food hasn't been sated.
Still, the question remains: Why go to Roat Osha, versus Tum Rup Thai? The two seem to share more similarities than differences. With its new high-ceilinged, glass-and-stone building and tasteful display of Thai artifacts, Roat Osha is as attractive as Tum Rup, though the vibe seems more subdued. A few exterior eyesores encroach on the space—the patio looks out on a gas-station parking lot, and the Hennepin street lights cast a blinding glare through the front window—but otherwise, save for the awful televisions above the bar, it's quite an improvement over its fast-food days.
Roat Osha's menu closely resembles Tum Rup's and the former Sawatdee's, which means you'll find the same scratch-made curries teeming with crisp vegetables and tender meats. The ones I tried hit each mark of sweet, sour, hot, and woodsy, though they could have done so with a bit more gusto, particularly the anemic pineapple curry. Yet I sympathize with the difficulty of offering variable spice levels, which Steve Hein admits is one of the restaurant's biggest challenges. "If you say, 'two-spice,' what should a 'two-spice' be?" he asks. I'm not sure, exactly, but I do know that a five-spicer and a one-spicer will have different ideas of what a two-spice might be.
Several of Tum Rup's tasty appetizers—fresh spring rolls, fried calamari, and slices of smoky-sweet grilled beef jerky—are just as good at Roat Osha. I think it's the lip-smacking sauces, such as the sweet-sour sriracha, the biting jalapeño, and the peanut vinaigrette, that elevate these apps from standard bar fare.
Among the overlapping dishes, a big, sharable bowl of the Thai soup Tom Kha Sot is one of the most memorable, and among the best cold-weather eats in town. The creamy, coconut-milk base smells a bit like ocean spray infused with the leafy perfume of a tropical jungle—kaffir lime, lemongrass, and galanga give it a citrusy, medicinal quality. The soup's green chiles sting like a winter chill, but it's the broth's tart tang that makes it nearly impossible to stop one spoonful from begetting another.
Roat Osha's main point of differentiation from Tum Rup, and from other local Thai spots, is its selection of seafood dishes. Somsap Hein serves a nice version of the Minnesota-Thai hybrid walleye green curry, a delicate fillet with a rich, spicy sauce and chunks of fresh pineapple. I also liked a dish of prawns and crab claws that had been stir-fried in a spice blend as sweet and warm as summer, which helped tie the subtle sea flavors to the bitter crunch of celery and greens.
When I ordered one of the new dishes, the seafood sukiyaki, my server paused, and then asked, in the way that Minnesotans like to skirt the edges of sensitive topics, "Do you eat Thai food a lot?" The sukiyaki was, she said, something of an acquired taste. I took her counsel as a challenge: Having eaten Thai food everywhere from a former diner in Richfield (the late, lamented Ketsana's) to a beachside bistro in Phuket (enduring scads of wrinkly Caucasian men talking baby-babble to their local "girlfriends")—I was as ready as anybody, right?
Yet none of those experiences prepared me for the musty red paste that topped a perfectly good bowl of seafood and noodles. (Somsap, apparently, grew up with this dish, so certainly she has a head start on me.) Perhaps someday I will appreciate its pungency, but at that moment its smell reminded me of kimchi and curdled milk, its flavor, a decaying gym sock. Only after dousing the noodles with the accompanying fiery, cilantro-laced broth was I able to mute the fermented flavor enough to enjoy the rest of the dish.
Roat Osha's dessert selection, like Tum Rup's, is rather limited, particularly when good mangos aren't available. And while the Thai custard—it resembles an eggy bread pudding with little hunks of squash—served with sticky rice and sweet coconut milk is good, it can't really compare to mango sticky rice. I preferred the sesame-flecked fried bananas, which were sweet and starchy, almost like a cake doughnut, though they might have paired better with a scoop of ice cream than the puddle of honey on the plate.
While the Sawatdee restaurants played an important role in familiarizing local palates with Thai cuisine, it seems today's diners are looking for something bolder. Like Tum Rup Thai, Roat Osha is moving toward this new style, perhaps more in terms of ambiance than flavors. Now that many Uptowners consider pad Thai comfort food, I hope Roat Osha will be encouraged to push its cooking even further.