Sen Yai Sen Lek's Thai menu is bold yet inviting
Sen Yai Sen Lek (Big Noodle, Little Noodle) is a new Thai restaurant located squarely at the happy intersection of "authentic" and "accessible." Bold, bright, spicy, sharp, and challenging flavors dominate the food, but the decor is warm, spacious, modern, and inviting. Even the menus are clearly written and elegantly laid out.
In contrast to the reigning Central Avenue vibe (which, for better or worse, tends toward no-frills or even gritty), Sen Yai Sen Lek is calculated for an upscale clientele. Large, comfortable booths, brightly colored walls, tasteful music, and a graceful design make this feel more like a restaurant at Hennepin and Lake or in Kingfield. Sen Yai Sen Lek also explicitly affirms core values on its menu in a manner that is very of-the-moment—it pledges allegiance to family ownership, cultural authenticity, social and environmental sustainability, and community orientation.
The menu is equally progressive. While the usual suspects (pad Thai, rad naa, pad see Iew) make their expected appearances, even jaded fans of Thai cuisine are likely to find some interesting new wrinkles. Noodle, rice, and Isaan sticky rice dishes make up the bulk of options, but there's also a daily curry special and a brief but well thought-out children's section featuring dishes such as a mild stir fry and a chicken dish with sweet soy sauce and noodles.
For starters, the po pia sod ($5.50) is an austere but tasty rendition of fresh Thai spring rolls, featuring mild Chinese sausage, bean sprouts, egg, onion, and a slightly sweet tamarind sauce. The wrapper was almost paper-like in its neatness and durability, rendering the rolls incredibly neat and easy to manage.
The Isaan steak dish nuea yang naam tok ($9.95) was a flavor explosion. Tender marinated flank steak dominated a field of mint, cilantro, green onion, and toasted rice powder. The flavor threw elbows: It was unexpectedly spicy, acidic, and herbally fragrant. In fact, the dish might have been too aggressive had it not been for the calming influence of the warm sticky rice served on the side. With the rice, the impact of the dish was moderated, tamed from "challenging" to "delicious."
Pad woon sen ($11.95) combined glass noodles, chicken, shrimp, peapods, and egg, and was as soothing as chicken soup on a cold day. A mellow, slightly funky umami dominated the dish, which had an incredibly tender mouthfeel. And laab gai ($7.95) combined the bright flavors of lime, lemongrass, mint, and sharp, raw onion to awaken and then dazzle the palate. Again, a side of sticky rice acted like a catcher's mitt for high-velocity flavor.
Dessert was a mostly positive experience. A dish of sticky rice with coconut milk ($4.95) wasn't sweet enough for half of our party of four, but the Izzy's coconut ice cream in a dish with fried bananas ($4.95) was a universal hit.
Ambition, good taste, and adventure have made common cause at Sen Yai Sen Lek, a restaurant destined to take its place among the best Thai eateries in the Twin Cities.
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