Although Lao Thai restaurant on St. Paul’s burgeoning University Avenue has been around for 17 years, most people have driven past it with hardly a glance. With the business interruption caused by light rail construction, the owners decided to undertake a makeover, and during a recent drive-by, the bright, freshly painted exterior and beckoning signage caught my attention. Curiosity piqued, I decided to see what was going on inside, which proved to be a well-rewarded decision. Not only did I discover an eminently hospitable family-run ambiance, but also an equally clean, comfortable, cheery interior and numerous well-prepared dishes that I would happily return to enjoy again.
As Southeast Asian menus go, this one is on the restrained side, but it’s not at all difficult to craft a delicious meal. Start with the family egg rolls—as crisp, well-filled, and exemplary as any around. I also recommend the fresh spring rolls—monster-sized, deftly wrapped cylinders of layered pork, shrimp, rice noodles, and assorted vegetables. I much preferred these two to the rather chewy, bland strips of deep-fried Lao beef jerky or the dense chicken wings stuffed with ground pork.
Next, try a couple of the salads. One would be the traditional lob—a mixture of minced chicken or beef mingled with lime juice, cilantro, onions, and rice powder served with crisp lettuce leaves for wrapping. This dish delivers a delayed kick that is addictively pleasant. Also delicious is the bean thread salad, which is much like the lob but distinguished by the toothsome quality of the bean thread noodles, ground pork, and peanuts. From there, I’d recommend a shared bowl of tom yum soup, brimming with straw mushrooms, whole lemongrass stalks, kaffir lime leaves, and a spice level at an assertively perfect pitch.
For mains, the two dishes we enjoyed most were fresh garlic with pork and a whole deep-fried walleye fillet topped with homemade Lao tomato sauce. Although I would have preferred a bit more black pepper edge on the pork, there was no denying the well-prepared quality of the stir-fried meat. As for the walleye, it wasn’t the limp tomato sauce that captured my fancy, but rather the unexpected piquant nature of the crisp, impeccably fresh fish.
Like so many of the University Avenue spots that I’ve visited over the past several months, the big surprise is the small size of the bill. This one was truly an incredible bargain. 501 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-224-5026, laothaimn.com