Today (Friday, 29 April, 2011) I finally got a chance for a first visit to Thai Café, an apparently recent addition to the Saint Paul Thai restaurant scene. It won’t be my last.
While one might wonder at the wisdom of locating a Thai restaurant within a block of Bangkok Thai Deli, which has been critically acclaimed as “the most authentic rendition of Thai street food culture in the Twin Cities,” one taste of the food might leave you as delightfully torn as it has left my partner and me after dining there today.
At first glance, this charming little spot offers the standard meat-filled fare, but take a closer look. This is “the little restaurant that could.”
This little place seems to have a staff of no more than two, and often just one. The woman behind the counter was both cook and waitress, and may have been the owner as well. She greeted us, seated us, brought us menus and settled our bill when we had finished.
While her English wasn’t very good, it was certainly better than my nonexistent Thai, but we occasionally found communication a bit of a challenge. At one point, when I asked her a question, she asked a Thai customer, who was there picking up a take-out order, to translate between myself and her so that she could understand and answer my question. To me, this was a very good sign indeed, suggesting that I was in for some potentially authentic food.
The two page menu is divided into categories: Appetizers (& Salads); Rice Noodle Soups; Fried Noodles; Fried Rice; Stir-Fried; Curries; and Fish. A separate menu card lists drinks from sodas to bubble teas to juice drinks to Thai iced tea/coffee.
Appetizer prices range from 2.99 to 5.99; most soups are 5.99; and most entrées are 7.49. All I can ask, with prices this low, is, “What decade are these people living in?” But with prices like these, who was I to argue with my apparent good fortune?
We started with both a Thai iced tea and a Thai iced coffee. The iced coffee was dark and strong, with the least amount of cream I’ve ever seen in any other Thai restaurant. The iced tea was beautifully balanced, not overly sweet like some I’ve had at other places.
We then ordered a Papaya Salad to share. Be sure to order the Thai one and not the Lao one, as the Lao Papaya Salad contains fish sauce. Perhaps it was because I had ordered my entrée “Thai spicy,” but the papaya salad packed quite a heat punch, which I found delightful in contrast to the cold crunch of the raw papaya, tomatoes, and sections of long beans (SCORE!) in the peanut-topped salad. While the serving wasn’t as large as some Thai places, it was very reasonably size for one.
For entrées, I ordered a Panang Curry with Tofu, and my partner ordered a Red Curry, also with Tofu (sadly, they don’t have Mock Duck ... yet; I’ll work on that).
I feel a brief digression on heat levels is in order at this point. As I mentioned, I ordered my food “Thai spicy.” If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t hot enough. My partner, on the other hand, having stomach problems, loves hot food, but can’t always tolerate it very well. HE asked that his food be as mild as she could make it, with maybe just a little bit of heat, if any. The good news is that we both got our wish. Mine was hot as Hades, his was mild, and both were delicious.
I ordered the Panang curry out of curiosity as much as anything else; a vegetarian version of this traditionally meat-heavy dish is usually not to be had. While I think Mock Duck would make for a truly awesome Panang curry, the version I ordered, with fried tofu, was delicious. While the menu said the dish came with strips of both red and green bell pepper, mine came with strips of red bell pepper exclusively, a much more expensive proposition. The Tofu, peppers, basil and spices were enrobed in a creamy sauce “with a touch of peanut butter.” While the portion was not as large as some I’ve seen in other restaurants, once again it was a more than adequately sized for one, and, a that price, achieved just the right balance of price to size as far as I was concerned.
Now, having more than a passing familiarity with Thai food, I was a bit surprised that the sauce was smooth, being used to one chock full of crushed peanut. But, not to worry. On the condiment tray on every table sat a serving jar of crushed peanuts, which allowed me to add as much as I wanted until the dish was as perfect as I imagined it could be. In the end, it as delicious, well textured, fairly sized and cheaply priced. What more could I hope for in a restaurant entrée?
As for my partner’s red curry, he pronounced it excellent. With just a hint of heat in a creamy coconut broth, it was thick with vegetables such as Thai eggplant, broccoli, carrot, bamboo shoots, long beans, red bell pepper, slices of taro and cubes of fried tofu. Often with such curries, the flavours of the vegetables seem to get lost in the sauce, but he kept remarking on how incredibly fresh and vibrant the vegetables tasted. And, unless I miss my guess, the bamboo shoots might have been cut in house from fresh, rather than canned, as they had a more firm texture and more pronounced flavour.
Both entrées came with white rice, in quantities larger than either of us could finish, but which provided a beautiful accompaniment for scooping up spoonfuls of the sauces in each of our main dishes.
So, in the end, both of us were thrilled with our meals, and told the kindly woman so. As we were leaving, my partner mentioned to me that he had seen something on the counter about which he was curious, but he isn’t the kind of person to ask about such things. Piquing MY curiosity, I went back into the restaurant to ask for both of us.
The item in question was in clear plastic cups with lids, and looked like a clear thick tapioca gel with kernels of sweet corn and small chunks of taro suspended in it, with what looked like cream in a thin layer on top. I asked her what it was.
“Thai dessert,” she answered. I asked how one eats it; was it meant to be hot, cold, or room temperature? At first she seemed puzzled; there was that communication thing again. A little more of my searching for clearer words, and her face lit up. “Like now,” she said, which I took to mean, “At room temperature.” I thanked her for the information, and turned to leave.
“You take,” she said, and when I turned, I saw that she was offering me one of these curious “desserts.” She produced two plastic spoons, saying again, “You take. Enjoy.” Never one to turn down an adventure, especially an authentically Thai one, I thanked her profusely and accepted her offer.
Several hours after we got home and were much less full than when we had left the restaurant, it was time to try the mysterious dessert that we had received. It was indeed just what I described, though, to my delight, the white top layer wasn’t cream at all, but white sweet glutinous rice, in a thin gruel, poured over the top. On a guess, I mixed the top layer in and tasted a spoonful.
It was definitely unusual to the Western palate: subtly sweet, one could call it “Corn & Taro Tapioca Pudding.” The serving was, to us, enough for two, but, being the more adventurous eater, I ate most of it. It was tasty, beguiling (vegetables in my dessert??), and authentically Thai. Am I glad I got to try it? Certainly. Would I buy it next time? Not sure; I’m usually too full with everything else to make room for dessert, but maybe ....
So, to sum up: with a cheerful attitude, a “We can make almost any dish vegetarian” promise of helpfulness, deliciously authentic dishes and almost unbelievable prices, Thai Café is not to be missed. Be sure to ask about fish sauce (Nam pla), and eggs in the fried rice. But, with just a modicum of attention, both vegetarians and likely even vegans can, it seems to me, have a rewarding time eating at this new and delightful Thai restaurant. They list their hours as 10 am to 9 pm seven days a week.