True Thai Story
2627 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
I'm always curious about the private conversations that go on in immigrant communities about the giant masses of white people they suddenly have to deal with. As a restaurant critic, I generally figure I am in the worst possible seat to hear these conversations, because the balance of power is so ridiculously out of whack between small restaurateurs and little old me. Yet talking on the phone to Anna Prasomphol Fieser, the co-owner of newish True Thai in Seward, I began to get the unusual sense that she was sharing the real deal with me, the actual thinking and conversation about mysterious, inscrutable Caucasians that informs the menu design and recipes in a Southeast Asian restaurant in this town. And brother, it ain't pretty.
"I really don't know why I had to open a restaurant," says Prasomphol Fieser, "I've been a public health nurse for 10 years, so I don't need another job." (She still works full time, as a nurse.) "But I like to eat a lot, I would go out at least twice a week--but there is no Thai food! So I think, I have to do something about it. I feel enormous pressure. I want to represent Thailand--the food, the country, the creativity, everything. For seven years, I tried to find a cook. But I couldn't find a cook that would do the food like they do it in Thailand. I interviewed so many people, they all said: Sure, I'll come and work for you, but you live in America now, you are serving to American people, they eat bland food, so you have to adapt to that taste, blah blah blah. I don't want to do that! Then I'll be like the rest of Thai restaurants: Laotian cooks that are not actually Thai cooks, and none of them professionally trained.
"Then, I found Chef Nong." Chef Nong, who goes only by that name, has been cooking for some 31 years, and was head chef at Chitpochana Restaurant, a 1,200-seat fine-dining establishment in Bangkok, Thailand, according to Prasomphol Fieser. Chef Nong had been living in the Twin Cities for 10 years, but reportedly no one would let her cook in the truly Thai style.
"Nobody wanted her to use her own recipes," says Prasomphol Fieser. "They say, 'Okay, you can work here, but you can't use your recipes. You can only use our recipes, because we want to cook for the American people, to the American taste', so she really did not have the opportunity to express herself. But now, the recipes she has been using at True Thai are the same recipes she used at Chitpochana Restaurant. Everybody in Thailand knows about Chitpochana, but other Minnesota restaurants would tell Chef Nong it's too Thai--if you cook like that our restaurant will surely fail. Everything in Thai restaurants in Minnesota is too sweet. Thai restaurant owners here believe that American people like sweet, so they do everything sweet sweet sweet! Thai food has four flavors--sweet, salty, sour, and spice, and for a dish to be good it must be all four. But around here it's just sweet."
After years of looking, Prasomphol Fieser had finally found a chef. Then she and her longtime romantic partner, and now restaurant partner, Charles Whitney, started looking for a restaurant space. Whitney spent many years working as a paramedic in Southeast Asian refugee camps. He was on the first medical team sent to Thailand in 1978 by the American Refugee Committee, he says. He and Prasomphol Fieser met when she was waiting tables in a Minnesota Thai restaurant and he was between overseas assignments; they got to chatting in Thai, and now we have this fantastic restaurant. But I get ahead of myself.
They found the little spot on the corner of 26th and Franklin avenues, which has been one terrible Thai restaurant or another for as long as I can remember, and took it over. Three months of renovations followed, much of which involved improving the kitchens, and installing a prep kitchen in the basement for the extensive prep work needed to cook all the Thai dishes from scratch. Every curry paste is made from scratch, say True Thai's owners: Peels are extracted from expensive fresh kaffir limes, which are blended in secret combination with various things which include chilies, tamarind, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and every spice you can think of. Charles Whitney's parents were brought out of retirement in Florida, and set to assisting the wait staff.
Then, before the opening, the inevitable dark dilemma: To cream cheese wonton, or to not cream cheese wonton? "For many nights I laid awake, tossing and turning, tossing and turning," says Prasomphol Fieser. "We have no cream cheese in Thailand. I am tossing and turning, tossing and turning. Finally, at the last minute I decided yes! Because kids come in just for that. So I do it for the children."
I usually don't give so very much space to a restaurateur's own words, but I felt like in this instance it provided a pretty interesting insight into the thinking that us people on the other side of the restaurant check don't often get: the intentional dumbing down--or, more literally, sugaring up--of the food, the behind-the-scenes arguments that result in these on-plate monstrosities of mayonnaise-Alfredo sauce, heart-attack-stuffed chimichangas, and corn-syrup pad Thai.
And I probably wouldn't believe a word of it if the True Thai cooking wasn't so fantastic. This thing about truly Thai cooking is pretty much a running joke for me, run only in the dark confines of my very own head, because I have never yet talked to a Thai restaurateur who didn't insist that they had the only truly Thai food, whereas all of the competition is in fact merely amateurs. Over time, I have decided that the idea of one true Thai kitchen is like the idea of one true faith: we must all agree that there are many, or bloodshed will fell us all. That said, the Thai at True Thai is truly Thai to die for.
Bah dum cha! Seriously, folks, take my catfish salad, please. Oh no, wait, give it back, I want it, because that dish ($11.95) is an amazing thing: A fillet of catfish is fried until it's as crisp as an apple slice, then tossed with shredded green mango and handfuls of fresh herbs in a zippy citrus and chili marinade, all of which is served on some layers of lettuce and tastes like a meadow would, if it were made of fireworks, which is a very appealing thing indeed.
The tom yum soup ($7.95 to $9.95, depending on what you put in it) was among the best I've had in Minnesota, an elusive, complex blend of jungly tastes that come from the fresh mushrooms, and various seasonings like galangal and kaffir lime leaves that go into the making of the broth, united around a focus of sour, and given a lilt with lots of fresh lemongrass. The tom yum is presented in a silvery tureen shaped like a doughnut with a warmer in the middle; it comes with another silvery tureen of rice. Most all of the other dishes are presented on colorful platters shaped like leaves or fishes, and when all of these things hit the table, the place seems quite fancy, which is especially nice when you consider that most of the entrees are in the economically appealing $8 to $12 range.
The wee wine and beer list is a model of economy too, in terms of both size and price: For beers, there is Singha, and five kinds of Bells (all $4 to $5); the 10-bottle wine list has some very nice Thai food choices, like the melon-scented Lawson's Dry Hills Sauvignon Blanc ($17), or the elegant, balanced white-fruit punch of Sokol Blosser's Evolution ($24).
Put a bottle of wine on the table and order up a few of True Thai's darling appetizers, like the adorable Royal Thai fish (or shrimp) cakes ($4.95) and you'll likely fall for this neighborhood sweetheart too: These cakes are little silver dollar-sized eggy pancakes made with fish (or shrimp!), chopped green beans, and that secret power-booster of house-made curry paste. They are intense little flavor nuggets, and come with a sweet dipping sauce and a wee bowl of a brisk cucumber concoction--a chunky combination of cucumbers, jalapeños, and rice-wine vinegar that's halfway between a salad and a relish. Dip a fish cake in sauce, take a bite, chase it immediately with a bite of cucumber, voilà! Sweet, savory, salty, sour, spicy, cool, crisp--it's like an itty-bitty Jules Verne novel of an appetizer: Around the Palate in 80 Seconds.
My only complaints with the place were that the service ranged from diffident to brusque. One night we didn't get seated until after 8:00 p.m., and the restaurant seemed to not particularly want us there, so appetizers, soups, and entrées hit the table in one magnificent bums rush. If the lighting at dinner was turned down a fluorescent notch or two, it would also be lovely. That said, Ill be back because every dish I tried at True Thai was a few notches above most local Thai cooking (well, except the Homer Simpson-sounding Golden Wheel of Shrimp & Ham Delight, which is basically a fried, very salty Thai quesadilla priced at $7.95.)
The curries are, of course, the restaurants claim to fame, and they are all complex sauces, the kinds of things the mind never tires of finding depths and nuances to through an entire meal, like a profound wine. The Rama spinach curry is mellow and elegant; the red curry deep and haunting. And it is my eternal regret that I didnt think to order the Sweet Green Curry, which, Anna Prasomphol Fieser explained to me, is the restaurants star and standout, and us non-royalty types should be very glad we can get it at all, as it was originally only served to Thai royalty or guests at the royal palace. Though what those long-ago royals would do if they knew their precious secret was going for $7.95 (with tofu) to $9.95 (with shrimp) to any peasant in the neighborhood is up for debate. As Prasomphol Fieser put it: "Its a very, very risky business. Its very risky, but Im willing to take that risk."
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