Spice of Life
Taste of Thailand
1671 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 644-3997
DOOMSAYERS LOVE TO spot patterns of failure (real or interpreted); it makes their negativity rational and makes it so much easier to say, "Oh, that will never work out, look what happened to..." When Taste of Thailand moved in across from the laundromat in St. Paul on Selby, a location where restaurants (usually Chinese or Vietnamese) seem to come and go more often than most college kids do their laundry, my favorite cynic told me that it would be a waste of time to even go down there. The spot was cursed, she contended, always would be. Three separate visits to this casually sunny cafe forced her to give up her gloomy, superstitious prediction.
Recently opened by one of the co-founders of St. Paul's illustrious Ruam Mit, Taste of Thailand is bright and roomy with two dining areas. Nothing too fancy, mind you, but clean, with low-slung booths and tables adorned with gladiolus and silk flowers and ringed with high-backed chairs. Every time we dropped by, Taste of Thailand was adequately busy, proving that despite its location and newness, people have already taken a shine to this inexpensive, wondrous place. Perhaps the cafe itself wasn't expecting to be so quite so busy either; at times, the small staff seemed to be overextended. But what's a few minutes in line, and a few more waiting for your waitress, when the food comes out of the kitchen at a brisk pace, and, more importantly, sends you into rapture within the first few bites?
Many items on the menu at Taste of Thailand will look and taste familiar to Ruam Mit fans. But there are plenty of new twists also--fish cakes, tripe, crab legs with hot chili pepper, and an extensive list of appetizers. Lovers of egg rolls and Vietnamese-type spring rolls won't be disappointed by the five selections here. The fresh spring rolls ($3.75) that we tried were phenomenally fresh, as fat as a chubby baby's arm, delicate rice paper tenuously holding in a bank of jumbo shrimp, fresh carrots and cabbage, bits of pork, and silver thread noodles. Dipped in a vinegary, peanut-laden syrup, it was just the thing to fill a belly while waiting for your entrée.
Also wonderful are the curry puffs ($4.60), three fist-sized pastries deep-fried to a golden crisp (and, amazingly, not greasy) and stuffed with a curried mixture of chicken, onions, and potatoes. For a lighter treat that still packs a wallop, order the miang kham ($4.50). You might not recognize it as an appetizer when the plate of lettuce rimmed with piles of chopped lime, dried shrimp, fresh ginger, jalapeño peppers, white onions, roasted coconut, and roasted peanuts comes out. Make sure that you don't start sprinkling them over your other dishes; peel a leaf of lettuce off and fill it with the goods, wrap it so they don't fall out, dip it the tangy sauce it comes with, and pop it all into your mouth. Imagine the powerful taste of fresh ginger, salty dried shrimp, lime, dancing in your mouth.
Anyone with a penchant for Southern-style crab cakes will fall in love with the fish cakes here ($4.50 for a serving of six; what a bargain!), fried to a delicate crisp on the outside, the insides tender and lush with a mix of fish meal, red curry paste, eggs, chopped green bean, and kaffir lime leaves. Served with a side of vinegary, sweet cucumber salad, we polished off every last fleck.
Entrées are numerous, and range from spicy squid or beef salads ($4.50) seasoned with lemongrass and coriander, to big, perfumed bowls of soup, to curried dishes. The curries we tried were amazingly rich. Served with rice, our favorites were the fish curry (orange roughie simmered in coconut milk with red curry, kaffir lime leaves, and basil twigs; $6.75) and the roast duck curry (same thing with plump pieces of skinless duck, falling-apart-tender, with peas and tomatoes to boot and minus the lime leaves; $6.55). Another dish bound to excite is the laab nua, an extremely potent mixture of ground, lean beef finely chopped and mixed with beef tripe, treated with a healthy dose of lime juice, roasted rice powder, mint leaves, coriander, green onions, and hot chili peppers. Don't stick this powerful mix into your mouth without softening the blow with a bit of the dessert-like sticky rice and the broth with fresh vegetables that accompany it. Heady stuff indeed.
A fortune cookie will probably be all you can handle after a meal like this, though custards and sweet sticky rice are on the menu for dessert ($1.50-$2.25). We were tempted by the buttercup squash with custard ($3.25), but fortunately for our waistbands, they were out of it for the evening. There's always next time. That's a common reaction for first-time patrons of Taste of Thailand. Cynics take note; the jinx is being conquered by great Thai food.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.