On’s Kitchen IV (St. Paul, MN)


When people ask for recommendations for the best Thai food in the Twin Cities I usually mention Bangkok Thai Deli, and lately Thai Cafe, and then say, but really, On’s Kitchen is the best. It recently occurred to me though that somehow we have not eaten at On’s since my last review and that was in early 2018. Science demanded that we go back soon to check if that recommendation can continue to be issued with such conviction. And so it came to pass that we descended on On’s Kitchen with a few friends last Saturday and ordered and ate an ungodly amount of food. What was our verdict on its current merits? Read on.

First things first: while the exterior of On’s Kitchen remains unchanged, the interior has recently undergone a bit of a transformation. The central area of the dining room, which used to hold freestanding tables and chairs (mostly four-tops) is now taken up by four-seater booths. Everything else remains the same but this has the effect of making the dining room feel heavier and darker. It might also have the effect of making it harder to seat very large groups. We were, as it happens, a group of eight—but we got there before noon on Saturday and didn’t have any trouble getting a table. In fact, we wouldn’t have had any trouble getting a table over the ninety minutes or so that we were there. The restaurant was far from empty but it was also not as full as we’ve seen it on occasion.

We were five adults and three small children. You might think this might not add up to a very large order but that is not how I roll. We got 13 dishes for the table, which was just barely large enough to hold them all as they began to come out in sequence. First up, a couple of orders of chicken satay for the kids and an order of kor moo yang (grilled pork neck) for the adults. The kids loved their satays and the adults like the grilled pork very much with the spicy dipping sauce. Next up, a couple of salads. We are big fans of their mango salad; it was very tasty on this occasion as well but would have been much better if delivered at the high heat setting we’d asked for. Much better was the nam khao (crispy rice salad), which was handily better than the version we’d enjoyed in its own right at Hai Hai earlier this year. The pad Thai with chicken was decent but could have used a little less sugar and just a bit more heat. Two members of the party were first-timers at On’s and so I also got an order of the haw mok—fish steamed with red curry paste and coconut milk in a banana leaf cup. The flavour was good but it was, alas, a bit over-steamed.

The heavier dishes got underway with an order of khao poon gai and khao ka mu (barbecued pork). The pork was mostly for the kids and they loved it. The khao poon was tasty but also a bit too sweet. The too sweet problem continued with the green curry (with pork) which also suffered from being a little too soupy. The next couple of dishes, however, were excellent: the crispy catfish in red curry sauce and the pad sathor—both from the On’s Specials section of the menu. The pad sathor—with shrimp and pork—may be a hard sell with the sathor beans living up to their “stink bean” appellation but it is a wonderfully funky dish. The catfish is altogether more straightforward but no less excellent for that. Also from the On’s Specials section we got the pad tofu sae-shuan. I confess I ordered this only because the name and the description of the dish made me wonder if this was a Thai version of ma-po tofu. Having eaten it I can say that if it is, it has transformed a fair bit in the translation. Not bad but nothing I am in a hurry to order again. The last dish took us  back into the area of the excellent: the crispy fried shrimp, which is a large mound of perfectly fried head-on shrimp sitting on a large mound of fried veg.

For pictures of all of the above launch the slideshow below. The pictures are not that great. As I mentioned, the restaurant has gotten darker and we were in the darkest corner, with our tables lit by yellow bulbs inside translucent blue shades. This all but defeated my dslr’s white balance settings—my Pixel’s camera in the “night sight” mode handled it a lot better. Scroll down after to see how much all this cost and whether I would continue to recommend On’s Kitchen above all others.

All of the above plus a couple of soft drinks and some bowls of rice came to $224 with tax and included tip. Counting the kids as 1/2 an adult each we were 6.5 adults. But we took huge amounts of food home. I would say 10 adults could have easily eaten all this and been sated. So, an effective price of $23/head. In other words, very good value.

But where would I rank this meal vis a vis our recent meals at the other University Ave. contenders? Well, while it was a good meal, on the whole, it was not the best meal we’ve eaten at On’s. A few too many dishes suffered from being too sweet. And despite the fact that we asked for a number of things to be made very hot, nothing was. As far as I could make out, On was not in the kitchen that afternoon—at least I did not see her when we were waiting to be seated in the area adjoining the kitchen or when we left. If she was not in fact there that may possibly have had something to do with it—we’ve had less successful meals there in the past as well when she’s been in Thailand. (I am assuming, of course, that she is still normally there.) Well, whether she was there or not the meal was still better than those at the vast majority of Thai places in the Cities. But I wouldn’t rank it over our recent meals at either Thai Cafe or Bangkok Thai Deli. Just a few adjustments, however—less sugar, more heat, less watery green curry—and it would have risen above those, On or no On.

I will still say that our experience over the years indicates that at their best On’s Kitchen is clearly the top Thai restaurant in the cities; but it may well be the case that Bangkok Thai Deli and Thai Cafe are now more dependable. But before I can commit to that fully we’ll need to give On’s another go. They may yet reclaim the crown with ease.

Okay, up next: dim sum and Korean bbq from New York. I’ll have another report from St. Paul next week but that will be from the high-end of the market.

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