It had been more than two months since our last Thai meal (at Basil Cafe on—where else?—University Ave. in St. Paul) and that seemed like a dangerous situation to be in. Accordingly, on Saturday I drove up to Exit 110A on Highway 35E to Karen Thai in St. Paul for our latest pandemic takeout meal, bringing food back to eat on our deck with friends just as we had been doing last summer. The restaurant has been open for three or four years and I first heard about them about two years ago. I’m not sure why it took us so long to get there but multiple nudges from people online finally saw us fixing that oversight. Here is how it went.
It’s a tiny restaurant literally right off the highway in a small strip mall that also houses a Subway and a Mexican restaurant. They are open for dine-in and were quite packed when I arrived for the takeout pickup. In case you’re wondering about the name, “Karen” refers to the Karen people of southern Burma/Myanmar and northern Thailand. There are references online to the restaurant serving both Burmese and Thai fare but that does not appear to be true. The menu is all Thai and the gent I chatted with while picking up our order replied in the negative when I asked if they do any Burmese dishes off the menu.
The menu is also quite abbreviated (I have a horrible blurry photo of it in the slideshow below). Their websie does not have a menu on it, by the way. If you are unable to read the menu in the slideshow you’ll need to look at their Facebook page. At any rate, a number of standby dishes that you’ll find in all the top Thai places in the Cities, which is to say in St. Paul, are missing here: no larb, no grilled meat salads and not even any papaya salad. The printed menu currently runs to only 15 dishes plus a couple of specials. Does this limited focus mean that everything emerging from the kitchen is at the top of its game? Our experience suggested not. We ordered a fair bit of the menu and at our meal at least they ran the gamut from very good indeed to decent to highly uninspiring.
In the first category were three dishes:
- Boat noodles. This is really their calling card but it’s not on the menu. Just ask for it when you call. We got two orders and enjoyed them hugely.
- Tom yum soup. Their version, unlike most in town or most that I’ve had, has coconut milk in it (but not galangal as in tom kha kai) and was very tasty indeed.
- Pad kra pao. This classic stir-fry of ground meat (we went with pork) and holy basil served over rice with a fried egg on top was very good too.
In the second category fell five dishes:
- Sai krok. These rice and pork sausages were tasty enough but missing fermented or sour notes. It is entirely possible this is a common variation but I do prefer the sour/funky version of this dish at the University Ave. stalwarts. This is also not on the printed menu, by the way, but it’s on the picture menu on the wall.
- Thai fried rice. It was not bad but just missing some hard to quantify punch.
- The massaman curry (which we got with chicken), the red curry (which we got with beef) and the green curry (which we got with pork). All had excellent flavour except for one fatal flaw: yes, the cursed Minnesota sweetness. I failed to ask for things not to be made sweet and all of these just had too much sugar clogging up the acid and funk. (The green curry, it must also be said, was not very green.)
In the third category fell one dish in particular:
- Pad Thai. We got it with shrimp but it wasn’t the protein that was the issue. It was the fact that—as one of our friends said—it might have been better listed as “Sugar Noodles”. Even with a squeeze of lime this had barely any acid and no flavour emerged other than a simple, cloying sweetness.
That leaves one dish but one I did not get to try and so I cannot opine on it. The customers who ate all of it were big fans though. Yes, chicken satay.
For a look at the restaurant and the food launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost and for my take on the restaurant as a whole.
Karen Thai strikes me as the kind of place you go to for a specific set of dishes. Granted we didn’t get everything on the menu but the boat noodles seem to be the renowned dish here for a reason. I’d stop in again for a large bowl to myself any time. If you’re not on your own get an order of the pad kra pao as well. That said, I’d be open to trying the curries again if I could them to not make them sweet. Below the sweetness there was a complex depth of flavour. We were really surprised by the pad Thai though as you’d expect that to be a very common order. Did we just have bad luck with whoever made it that day? If you’ve eaten it there and found it very different or if there are other dishes on the menu you’d recommend, please write in below.
Price? With tax and tip it came to $150. It was enough food for 10 hungry adults so almost exactly $15/head for the real price. A good deal that would have been even better with less sugar in the mix. And the staff seem really, really nice. When the pandemic is truly behind us we will eat in there for sure.
Okay, next week’s report will be of our first indoor dine-in meal since March of 2020. We are scheduled to eat at Tenant on Wednesday and are looking forward to it very much.
You should check out the Thai Sunday Market that they have every few weeks in SLP (a bit of a hike for you, i know)– I’ve heard really great things about the boat noodles, which I haven’t tried, and their papaya salad is fantastic (with even the mild being spicy, so you will love the heat level). I’m surprised at the quality of the food they produce here since they are cooking in bulk.
Sounds good. I’ve heard that it gets pretty crowded there which has been a bit of a turn-off, especially in the pandemic. But maybe going early is the key.
You might try Friends Cafe, a Burmese-Thai place not far from Karen Thai. I love their Shrimp and Eggplant Curry, which is listed as a Burmese dish on their menu.
Thanks for the recommendation!