Lately it seems like every time we turn around, somebody is asking if we’ve tried Thai Garden yet, the under-new-management University Avenue home-style Thai kitchen.
The Twin Cities is fairly flush with good and even great Thai -- Krung Thep, Bangkok Thai Deli, and On's Kitchen, for example -- but the way people have been talking it up, we started wondering: Could Thai Garden be the best?
The facade is a charmer among University Avenue’s plethora of unassuming home-style spots. A hand-painted sign in flowery cursive writing beckons you in, and lengths of twinkle lights illuminate the night. A small deck-style patio with umbrella-ed tables is an added draw.
The vibe inside is familiar: a little too bright, nothing in the way of a soundtrack, but welcoming with extremely friendly service.
The menu is something of a tome, with eight long pages that include 17 variations on pho, several shareable whole fish preparations, a bunch of fried rice dishes, and some house specialties that look like Western-style bromides including seared salmon and grilled ribeye steaks. We bypassed them all in hopes of simpler things.
Spring rolls arrived stuffed with rice noodles still lightly warm from the steamer. Three variations of larb salad are available here, with the “country style” involving sliced, not minced, steak. It arrived satisfyingly funky, with copious showers of toasted rice and the proper insanity of spice. A wedge of cabbage rounds out the plate for a bit of cooling equilibrium.
“Pad Cashew Nut” is a revelatory stir-fry. This is not your typical heap of cornstarch-thickened overcooked/undercooked veg, but a delicately nuanced, silky brown sauce binding individually cooked veggies, each tender with singular distinction, plus pretty shrimp gently curling in on themselves. Lovely.
The chef stepped out of the kitchen no fewer than three times to check on our satisfaction, pausing to mention that the above dish was “special.” He said there were 12 different specialty ingredients within, and while there was a language barrier, we made out that ingredients were imported from two separate places in Thailand. We also detected heavy galangal, garlic, sweet dark soy, and probably some fish sauce. We highly recommend it, especially if you’re a lover of Cantonese cooking.
Probably the weakest dish, though still very good, was the “stir-fried garlic chile soup,” which had us imagining a bowl with flavor practically leaping out from the rim, but was instead a standard rendition of a red curry coconut soup. Still, it was fragrant and hot, and a great reason to welcome the fall chill.
If you’re a Thai coffee connoisseur, this place is ground zero for the art form. It arrives in a glass roughly the size and shape of a college dorm room bong, and is almost as intoxicating. Don’t miss it.
After a single visit I’m not quite at liberty to decide if Thai Garden deserves its reputation as the most buzzed about St. Paul restaurant of the moment. I’m of a mind to pass some of that energy along to Thai Cafe, also on University Avenue, run solely, and powerfully, by a mother-and-daughter team.
But Thai Garden is a sure contender within the genre. We'd urge you to head over, get caffeinated, and add to the discussion.
432 University Ave. W., St. Paul