When Chef Joe Hatch-Surisook and wife Holly decided to open their new Thai rice & noodle shop, they wanted to do it their way. “We wanted to create something on our own terms that reflects our values,” Chef Hatch-Surisook said. Every menu lists the restaurant’s guiding principles of family ownership, cultural authenticity, social and environmental sustainability, and community orientation. Such a public statement of commitment to the surrounding community is relatively new for Asian restaurants, but the Hatch-Surisooks were determined to open Sen Yai Sen Lek (Big Noodle, Little Noodle) in the same part of town they live in and saw a hole in Northeast Minneapolis for Asian cuisine.
Joe and Holly Hatch-Surisook stand in front of a painting created by a Thai relative. It shows the whole family on a recent trip to Thailand.
Chef Hatch Surisook was inspired by Tanpopo in St. Paul, a Japanese restaurant that offers an array of authentic Japanese noodle dishes, as well as Chef Shack, which is well-known for its mouthwatering street food. Hatch-Surisook created his menu to invite people to eat communally and picked dishes that go well with drinks. The menu includes a section of "Isaan sticky rice dishes". This refers to the region of Thailand bordering Laos that the chef's father comes from -- a region well-known for the bold flavors of its cuisine. As Chef Hatch-Surisook says, “There’s nothing subtle about it.”
Pad Kee Mao, made with wide rice noodles, is just one of the dishes featured on Sen Yai Sen Lek's lunch menu.
For an example of how salty, sour, and spicy work together for intense flavor, the chef points out the Laab Gai ($7.95) – a salad featuring chopped chicken with toasted rice powder, mint, lime and lemongrass. The dish, like all others in the Issan section of the menu comes with a small cylindrical basket of sticky rice. For a complete Isaan meal, the chef suggests his guests order different Isaan dishes and share everything. Such dishes include a green papaya salad, a spicy shrimp salad, crispy marinated chicken wings, and sweet dried beef seasoned with coriander seeds.
The restaurant also offers tried and tested children's options. They are all $4.95 and come with -- get this -- a scoop of ice cream! Holly Hatch- Surisook confirms that the dish called Frey and Jasper’s Favorite Stir Fry, is indeed one that her children love. She says they prefer tofu to chicken, which is why the dish has tofu, broccoli and is served with rice.
This quartet of condiments showcases some of the flavors the chef tries to balance in his dishes -- salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.
What I’ve liked about Sen Yai Sen Lek on my visits there are the little details I don’t see at other Thai places I’ve tried. For instance, a quartet of condiments sits on each table, with sections for sliced hot peppers in vinegar, organic cane sugar, crushed red pepper, and sliced Thai chilis in fish sauce. Also, there are a number of dishes that offer a bit of surprise. Pad Bpai Gra Pow ($10.95), a stir fry dish made with Thai basil, ground pork or chicken and long bean comes to the table with a single fried egg on top. An appetizer I want to try in the future is Tod Mum($4.95), curried fish cakes made with kaffir lime leaves and served with a cucumber and peanut relish.
Of course, some of the regular finds on Thai menus are also present – the mango with sweet sticky rice for dessert or my personal favorite, Thai iced tea – the melon-colored tea drink made with evaporated milk. It comes in a tall glass filled with ice and is sweet, cold, and caffeinated.
Whether you go for old favorites, or intriguing new dishes, Sen Yai Sen Lek is a welcome addition to the neighborhood.