The recently reopened Ruam Mit Thai, in downtown St. Paul, has a wall covered in framed commendations from local media: Best This, Best That, Most Whatever, Greatest Something. It goes on and on. And to look at the place—an undistinguished space that could just as easily be a diner or a Greek deli, save for a few Southeast Asian decorative touches—you might think the accolades were forgeries, or swiped from a fancy, world-beating eatery.
The proof is always on the plate, however, and it turns out that Ruam Mit Thai earned its stripes the old-fashioned way, by cooking with passion and soul. Its dishes are largely straight-over-the-plate Thai classics, done simply but with a deft sense of balance that indicates a confident chef at the helm. The food doesn't win you over with novelty, or with garnishes, or with visual impact—although some of the dishes are pleasing to the eye in an unpretentious and stripped-down way. Instead, the food dazzles with flavor combinations that confidently shoot the rapids of the sweet, sour, acidic, and earthy that define Thai food.
Starting with the soup course, Ruam Mit Thai opens the meal confidently. The toam kha khai ($9.25 with chicken or pork) has a sweet and sour balance that is practically Libran. Tender mushrooms; astringent, pungent, flavorful lemongrass; kaffir leaves; galangal...this is good stuff. There's also a lot of it, so split it with a friend.
Pad Thai is a dish that's quite simple to dumb down into Fast Wok-esque accessibility. And while the Ruam Mit Thai incarnation of this noble workhorse of Americanized Thai cuisine ($9.25 to 13.45, depending on protein) should be agreeable to most palates, it's not because the chef beat any of the soul out of it. On the contrary, it's got the musky umami, slow-building heat, and rich flavor of an honest interpretation of the dish.
Diners looking to veer a little off the beaten path might want to try the pha ram long song ($8.95 to 13.45, depending on protein). The menu describes it as "a mouth-watering combination of red curry, coconut milk, crushed roasted peanuts." This doesn't quite do the dish justice, however. Whereas many Thai entrées that combine crushed peanuts and coconut milk often achieve a sweet, neutered, insipid flavor, the pha ram long song has a deeper, huskier, more full-tasting peanut taste to it. If your conventional massaman curry is Skippy creamy peanut butter, the pha ram long song is the organic alternative, ground by hand. And the curry doesn't mess around. I ordered mine "hot," and hot it was: a roiling, churning, burning heat that dominated the conversation without shouting down the other ingredients. Even the "medium" at Ruam Mit Thai packs real heat, in admirable defiance of Lutheran taste buds.
If you're looking for Thai food that's safe and easy, more than a few places are willing to dumb it down for you. But if you're looking for Thai food with soul, Ruam Mit Thai is a rare gem, an unpretentious place that dares to cook without compromise.