Not Merely A Thai
These Southeast Asian spots make a great first impression
Fresh ideas and new takes on tradition mark these two standouts. When it comes to local Thai dining, the opening of On’s Kitchen Thai Cuisine has raised the bar. Like so many family-run ethnic restaurants that don’t publicize themselves, this terrific little place has gone all but unnoticed. Considering the menu features numerous items that aren’t found anywhere else in town (such as basil wild boar available seasonally or by special order), the ingredients are fresh and the most authentic you can imagine (think holy basil that is bursting with just-picked flavor and toasted shredded coconut imported from Southeast Asia), and prices are so modest that you’ll likely do a double take with your bill, it seems to me we have the elements of a destination spot that’s truly deserving of rave recognition.
The owner formerly presided in the kitchen at Bangkok Thai Deli, the hole-in-the-wall that many critics (including me) and aficionados have accorded best local Thai honors. Most of the dishes at On’s were wonderfully memorable. One must-try item is the meing-kum, a traditional snack that offers a mix and match of diced ginger, lime, red onion, Thai chilies, roasted peanuts, dry shrimp, and toasted coconut. You wrap your choice of ingredients into a lettuce leaf and dip the kit and caboodle into a tangy sweet-and-sour fish sauce. Experimenting with all the texture and taste combinations is its own entertainment.
Another intriguing appetizer is haw-mok, a spunky tilapia and coconut milk curry steamed in a banana leaf. Other quality touches that caught my attention included the moist, thin wrappers on the traditional spring rolls, the buttery quality of the grilled pork satay, and the light, crisp skins on the fried egg rolls.
Among the conventional dishes sampled, one standout was the classic pad ga prow. In our case, the chef’s recommendation of unlisted ground pork stir-fried with holy basil and fresh vegetables made it great. Another winner was the homemade Thai green curry with chicken. Treated more as a soup than an entrée, it was bursting with great flavors and just the right amount of heat.
As for our one foray into the unconventional realm—a bubbling hot pot item of gelatinous fish maw (intestines), soft boiled quail eggs, and strips of poached chicken called ka-praow-pla—it wasn’t exactly my cup of soup. However, a Thai guest pronounced it spot on.
Desserts are definitely something not to be missed at On’s. The mango accompanying the sticky rice was sweet and ripe. And a trio of dishes using egg were a unique counterpoint—particularly the super sweet, labor-intensive, spaghetti squash–like foy tong that is formed by streaming egg yolk into roiling sugar syrup. Décor-wise, On’s is nothing fancy. But the staff is welcoming, and there’s no problem at all engaging and discussing their recommendations.
While I was waiting for the rest of my party to arrive at Naviya’s Thai Brasserie, co-owner Kim LaBarge stopped by to chat. He didn’t know me, but he was interested in learning how I had heard about the restaurant. I’d never visited any of the three highly regarded spots that he and his chef wife, Naviya, had previously operated, but as our conversation progressed, the feeling we both expressed was that for a variety of reasons, the Linden Hills neighborhood represented the perfect home for a quality Thai café. Later, after sampling the food, there was no doubt that this is a skillfully executed concept in a perfect location.
With a long-standing reputation for featuring “natural ingredients” and unadulterated meats such as grass-fed beef and seasonal vegetables, Naviya’s recipes also eschew MSG or artificial flavorings, and gluten-free tamari sauce can be substituted for soy. The chef’s talents played well in a couple of first-rate preparations. One was a rendition of the classic sweet holy basil supreme—an ethereal wok fry of tender meat, sweet basil, and assorted vegetables bathed in a slightly sweet sauce. A second was a highly recommended Bangkok hot plate. This tour de force of stir-fried beef, fresh garlic, cilantro, scallions, and vegetables du jour definitely delivered an abundance of harmonious, compelling flavors, particularly a pleasant burn of heat. Yet a third unanimous crowd-pleaser was Naviya’s take on red curry. It possessed an exquisite depth of flavor that included Kaffir lime leaf, sweet basil, coconut milk, and a confident shake of pepper.
The appetizers are mostly familiar Southeast Asian wraps, wings, and satay. Stick to the fried tofu crisps with a pair of great dipping sauces and the truly crispy fried shrimp in ginger tempura, and you’ll have experienced the best of the bunch. The service was first rate, attentive, gracious, and knowledgeable, and the restaurant itself is a charming little storefront with brightly painted walls and attractive design flourishes. The restaurant also has a thoughtful, well-above-average wine list.
Where to Find Them
On’s Kitchen Thai Cuisine: 1613 University Ave. W., St. Paul, 651-644-1444
Naviya’s Thai Brasserie: 2812 W. 43rd St., Mpls., 612-276-5062, naviyas.com