On's Kitchen

Twin Cities, Minnesota


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Hmm. Another Thai restaurant where I think the food is so-so. I'm noticing a pattern here in my preferences. The service was excellent: they knew what vegan was and knew what was in the food, and they were helpful. The decor was pretty boring. I wouldn't try to go back, but I'd go there again if my friends were going and I wanted to join them.

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I went to On's last week (21 March, 2011) after noticing the sign as I drove by.

The owner, On Khumchaya, was until recently head cook at her sister's restaurant, Bangkok Thai Deli, which has been my favourite Thai restaurant for some time, and which was recently referred to in a local publication (City Pages) as “the best local replication of Thailand's food-stall culture.”

So, needless to say, I was very interested to try On's Thai Kitchen.

I must point out before I begin that I have only made one visit, and perhaps it is unfair to review a restaurant based on one meal. However, I wanted to offer my impressions, so let's agree that I am reviewing the one meal I had, and not the restaurant as a whole, a task that must await several more meals (and there WILL be several more meals ... a good sign, eh?)

I ordered a Thai iced coffee (an excellent foil to fiery foods) and a dish called Spicy Noodle (with mock duck), an entrée I came to love with an almost irrational passion at Bangkok Thai Deli. Both items were ordered specifically to compare between the two establishments.

When I placed my order, I inquired as to the restaurant's levels of spiciness, and was informed that the scale was from 1 to 5. Presuming that 5 was Thai hot, I asked for #4. The waiter replied, “Very good, #4, Minnesota hot.”

“What!?” was the first word that sprang to my lips. In MY mind, “Minnesota hot” would be a 1 or a 2. But perhaps I was unaware as to just how brave Minnesotans had become in regards to spicy heat. I then informed my server that I wanted my dish “Thai hot.”

The Thai iced coffee arrived first. It was, as is all too often the case in most Thai restaurants, almost overflowing with ice, a problem for a person who, like me, prefers to stir their drink to mix in the sweetened condensed milk. When I commented on this to my shy Thai waiter, he said that reducing the amount of ice would render the drink too sweet, and all the extra ice was needed for balance. That being said, however, he kindly brought me a glass, unprompted, in which to deposit some of my ice so that I could stir my drink. Heeding his admonition, I then returned the removed ice to the drink before enjoying it.

The drink, however, even with all the ice, was almost blindingly sweet, unlike the more balanced versions I have had in numerous other Thai establishments. Having never been to Thailand, I have no real idea which version is more representative of Thai food generally.

When my dish of Spicy Noodle arrived, the waiter announced, “Spicy Noodle, Thai hot.”

It was beautiful and smelled wonderful; nicely arranged, cornered with green and red bell pepper strips, chunks of red tomato, and large sliced chunks of mock duck. And while it is said that “we first eat with our eyes, then with our sense of smell” the proof was in the tasting, so I dug right in.

I was shocked to find the dish, while tasty, was so mild that my partner, who has stomach problems and cannot tolerate spicy food, could have eaten this dish. On the one hand, I was not surprised, as I had seen the same scenario play out many times before in Thai restaurants in Minnesota, where they don't really believe you when you ask for it hot. On the other hand, I was used to On's former digs, Bangkok Thai Deli, where they knew hot and were SERIOUS about it as long as you were, too. When I informed my waiter about the blandness of the dish, he expressed surprise, then brought me a small ceramic cup of ground fresh red and green chilies (about 4 Tbs) to add to my meal.

That certainly perked my meal up on the heat scale, and I was soon sweating with happiness as I plowed through the dish, which was now truly SPICY noodle.

Apparently there had been some discussion of my complaint in the kitchen, as eventually On herself came out to ask me if the food was now spicy enough. When I thanked her for the chilies and informed her that I had mixed about 3/4 of them into the dish until it seemed just right, her jaw dropped. She seemed to have a hard time accepting that when I asked for spicy, I actually meant it.

“Next time you come, I know you, and it will be spicy,” she promised me.

I am very much looking forward to that next time, probably in the first week of April.

The decor is nothing to look at, except for the more prominent than most places Buddhist altar in the corner of the dining room; I paid my respects on the way out. Thankfully, there were no flat screen TVs blaring like in so many Asian establishments, so aside from the bland but quietly ignorable pop music, it was a pleasant and relaxing experience.

Based on my first experience, I sincerely recommend On's Thai Kitchen (park in back to avoid the LRT construction on University Avenue).

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update: 4.3.11 -- Ok, so my husband was able to speak to On herself the other day when he went back, and she verified that she makes everything from scratch and most things can be made without fish sauce. He enjoyed a meal that day and we went back together yesterday. This time we had Tofu Pad Thai and a mock duck dish that originally had pea pods but was made with green beans instead. I thought all of the flavors were delicious! We had fried tofu appetizer, which was again only so-so, but the sauce is awesome. I'm very please with On's and look forward to more delicious meals.

Original review 3.20.11: I tried this place the other day. I hope to try at least 1-2 times more. The appetizer, fried tofu, was mediocre. Not great, good, not bad. I tried the Thom Lak (laab/larb) salad with mock duck and no fish sauce. There was something about the flavors that was off -- too much citrus? Too much lemongrass? Something didn't balance it out -- maybe missing the fish sauce made the dish unbalanced.

I also tried a dish with mock duck, Anaheim peppers, and mushrooms. It had a savory gravy-like sauce, and was very interesting. Not spicy enough, but good.

I want to try this place again. The service was so-so. They acted as though everything was cool with being vegan and then brought out the second dish with chicken instead of mock duck and didn't offer to cover that mistake despite making us wait 15+ minutes for a re-do. Plus, the mock duck version was ordered as a 2 out of 3 spice, and tasted like a negative one -- but still flavorful and good.

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The first time I walked into the restaurant I was immediately hit by the smell of thai basil, it was intoxicating. I had the massaman curry with mock duck. When it came to my table, the presentation was excellent and the food was amazing. The curry was rich, spicy and peppered with delicious anise.
Be warned, their levels of spice are not tame. I have a high tolerance for heat and when I asked for hot, I got hot.
The service is friendly and quick and they are more than happy to use vegan friendly substitues in recipes that they use fish sauce in.

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