Basil Cafe, In Person (St. Paul, MN)


We first happened upon Basil Cafe during the height of the pandemic, almost exactly one year ago. They’d only opened in 2019 and we hadn’t had a chance to eat there before everything closed to in-person dining in 2020. Thankfully, they survived not only that first year but also the next and seem to be going strong now as things slowly return to something approaching normalcy. We too have been eating out more often this year—and so while our 2021 meal had been takeout, this past weekend we finally made it in to eat there in person. Here’s how it went.

If you read my first review very little of what I have to say about the restaurant today will be new. But let me repeat it nonetheless. The restaurant is perhaps the most attractive of all the Thai restaurants in St. Paul—or for that matter in the Twin Cities at large. If you want to eat Thai food in a nice setting, this is the place for you. But the ambience is not all it has going for it: the food is pretty good too. As I said last time, nothing is best in class but all of it is very good. The menu is abbreviated but what they do, they do very well.

We were six at lunch on Saturday—the four of us and two friends we eat out with often. On this visit we got some of the things we’d tried as takeout last year but also a few other dishes that we’d passed on then as they didn’t seem likely to cope well with a 50 minute drive and reheating. We started with three meaty appetizers: the crispy fried chicken wings (rather good), the fried pork belly with garlic (very good) and the pork jerky (also rather good). This last is theoretically discontinued (or so the print menu says) but on this occasion they had it and not the listed beef jerky. All three came with the same tasty hot-sweet dipping sauce.

We’d enjoyed their Thai-style papaya salad last time and on this occasion got it as a platter—which meant it came with a range of accompaniments to eat it with: cold rice noodles, cabbage, boiled eggs, turkey “meatloaf”, pork jerky strips, pork rinds and dried shrimp. We asked for it at the hottest setting and the papaya salad brought a fair bit of heat. Eating it with the cold noodles in particular helped nicely with that. Similarly asked for hot and bringing a good amount of heat was the pad kee mow (which we got with beef). Also on the table were two noodle soups: the kap poun with ground tilapia and the kao piak sen. It was my first time eating kao poun with ground tilapia and I really dug it. I also quite liked the milder but quite characterful kao piak sen, a soup with a thicker texture that was good in its own right and also good as a relief dish.

The adults rounded off the savoury dishes with a panang curry (also with beef; they had no pork on the day beyond the jerky). As with the curries we got last year, this was not overly-sweet, which is often the case with Thai curries in Minnesota. Indeed, it wasn’t particularly sweet at all and was quite tasty. The boys likewise enjoyed their khao mun gai or boiled chicken with rice and chicken broth on the side. The boys also enjoyed two of their house-made juices. They make a bunch which they serve in plastic bottles—you can get them with your meal or to go. The two we got were the mixed berries and the mango-passionfruit.

And we ended with an order of their mango-sticky rice. We’d enjoyed this very much in takeout form last year and I was glad to be told it was still available even though it’s no longer on the menu. It was even better this time with the sticky rice warm and not congealed from a long drive. Indeed, I’d say it’s one of my favourite desserts in the Twin Cities.

We were disappointed though to miss out—due to miscommunication—on their special fried banana dessert. When this was offered to us when the food arrived, I asked if we could hold off for a bit. I’d meant that we wanted it but not right then—all the food had come out more or less together and I thought the dessert would too if we said we wanted it. But I didn’t communicate this clearly and our server didn’t realize we wanted it. Later when we asked for it they were already out of it. Ah well, next time!

For a look at the restaurant and what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down to see how much it all cost, for my thoughts on service and a very small wishlist of what I’d like to see from the restaurant.

Service was very friendly, very present. They are truly very sweet people there and the experience was as pleasant as the food was tasty. I do wish though that the food had come out staggered a little more than it did and had been sequenced better: we ended up with everything on the table in short order. Next time I’ll either specify that we want things spaced or just order a few things at a time.

I should say, by the way, that though I have shots of the print menu in the slideshow above, the current menu is a digital one accessible by scanning a qr code. The items on the two menus are the same but the digital menu has the actual current prices, which are just a little higher than what’s on the print menu. Even with those slightly higher prices this was a very reasonably priced meal, coming to just over $160 for enough food for at least eight people to eat. Tasty food in a nice setting: who could ask for more?

So, what would I like to see from the restaurant? Well, I realize that having a shorter menu is not unconnected to the fact that they seemingly do all of it very well. Nonetheless, I do wish they’d add just a few more dishes: a larb and another grilled meat salad, green mango or bamboo salad, tom yum and kao soi would be my picks. Given how well they do what they do I’d love to taste their versions of these dishes; and in general it would be good to have enough on there to establish a rotation for repeat visits. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t go back to eat the dishes on their menu we’ve already tried: I absolutely would and would recommend you do so as well. And if you go soon, make sure to get the fried banana dessert and tell me what it’s like.

Next up on the restaurant review front: another Delhi report. That’ll be next Sunday. Next week’s Twin Cities report will be of one of our old Minneapolis favourites that we haven’t been to in some years: we are set to return to Alma this Friday.


 

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