My survey of the Twin Cities Thai restaurant scene continues and we’re once again on University Avenue in St. Paul. We ended up at Thai Garden last week (see the review) while attempting to eat at Thai Cafe—they were closed for a few days at the end of last week. We managed to fulfill the quest a week later. Our party included everyone who was at the Thai Garden lunch plus a couple more adults. We managed to eat quite a bit of the menu. And if we weren’t quite as impressed with Thai Garden as some of its press had led us to expect we might be, I am happy to report that Thai Cafe lived up to their own laudatory press. Indeed, after the first couple of dishes we were ready to place it on the On’s Kitchen level. And if not for an unfortunate error that marred the second half of the meal (see below), we might well have ended up there, at least at the level of the cooking.
Thai Cafe is a tiny restaurant, pretty much a counter with a few tables between it and the door. I don’t think it could seat more than 16 people at once (with the 10 of us at a few tables put together, there was only space left for three more two-tops). It’s a spare space, decorated mostly by indifferent pictures of their food. (There is parking in the lot right behind the restaurant.) Service is friendly and both the people in the front of the house when we were there had native fluency in English—I note this for the benefit of those who might have concerns about being able to navigate less familiar parts of the menu. That said, as at Thai Garden, there is not very much out of the ordinary on their menu. This is one area in which they fall short of both On’s Kitchen and Bangkok Thai Deli. The cooking, however, is very good.
So, what was the unfortunate error? Well, we’d asked for everything but the chicken satay and grilled pork for our kids to be made pretty hot. The first few dishes came out that way. After that, however, the heat level kept dropping and the last few dishes came out absolutely mild. Because we’d ordered so much and had a lot of dishes backed up on the table, I didn’t realize this until I got around to tasting everything and by then there was so little left of every dish it didn’t make sense to ask for anything to be redone. We’d wondered if the problem was due to a two-top that had come in a little after us and asked for their food to be done mild—i.e. if the kitchen had lost track of what was for them and what for us. But when I asked our young server about it while paying, she went back and checked and came back embarrassed, saying that she had unaccountably forgotten to tell them to make everything hot, and so the kitchen had assumed we’d only wanted the first few dishes hot.
This was a shame because even without the appropriate level of heat the food was tasty and had clearly been cooked with care and proper ingredients (as a representative example: Thai eggplant in the green curry—which is something you cannot take for granted in Minnesota). And it was a pleasure to encounter curries that did not induce diabetic reactions. That said, there were a couple of dishes that were a bit off even aside from this issue of heat: the boys did not care for their chicken satays which were unusually sour, and the grilled pork over rice was dull with a cloying sweet sauce.
To see everything we ate, please launch the slideshow below. And scroll down for thoughts on price and value.
All of this food came to $206 with tax and tip, or roughly $20/head. That’s very good even with the over-eating we all did (portion sizes were not petite). Despite the error with the heat level, we would be happy to come back again; next time we’ll be sure to check that everything is at the heat level we ask for. And next time, especially if dining in a large group again, I think we will order the food in waves rather than all at once. It wasn’t just an issue that the table filled up quickly with dishes that sat around a while before anyone got into them; things also came out in random sequence—the two deep-fried whole fish dishes, for example, coming out before the pork ribs or the soups.
On the whole, however, I recommend Thai Cafe without reservation, and can only hope that they continue to flourish. We’ll be back soon.
(My thanks to the commenters who recommended we eat there.)