Friends Cafe (St. Paul, MN)

Friends Cafe opened six years or so ago on Rice Street in that part of the Twin Cities metro where St. Paul, Roseville and Maplewood combine to create geographical confusion. It’s located in a large strip mall on the northwest side of the Rice and Larpenteur intersection but frankly, I’m not sure which city it is technically in. The restaurant’s menu says Roseville; Google and the restaurant’s check says St. Paul; meanwhile, a restaurant across the street is apparently in Maplewood. I will leave this to other people to sort out. What I can tell you for sure is that I deeply regret having let it fall off my radar before and during the pandemic, and that I am deeply grateful to longtime blog reader, Jim Grinsfelder for jogging my memory about it a couple of weeks ago. Yes, we finally made it out there for a meal and it was really very good. Herewith the details.

Friends Cafe is quite an unusual restaurant in that it offers a number of Burmese dishes. The restaurant is Burmese-owned and this in and of itself is not so very unusual. There is a decent Burmese, specifically Karen population in the Twin Cities and there are other restaurants owned by people from Myanmar. But all the ones I am aware of really only serve Thai food (this is also true, of course, of a number of Lao-owned restaurants). Friends Cafe’s menu too is dominated by a number of Thai classics. But they do have a section of Burmese dishes (plus a couple of Burmese appetizers). We ate only from this part of the menu. The rest, I would guess, is probably very good too. But good Thai food is available at a number of places in the East Metro and we wanted to eat as much of the Burmese dishes as possible. In fact, we ate all but two of them and we left regretting that we hadn’t ordered those as well!

Now, if you have not eaten Burmese food before, you may be wondering what it’s like. One way of answering that question—and please keep in mind that I am the furthest thing from an expert on the cuisines of Myanmar—is to look at a map. If you do, you’ll see that Myanmar is located right between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of Southeast Asia. That’s as good a way as any of getting a rough sense of things. But I don’t want to describe the food in terms of the cuisines of neighbouring countries that have a great deal more cultural capital in the West. I’ll just say that if you like Thai food and you like Indian food, there’s a pretty good chance you will like Burmese food. And you should really go to Friends Cafe and eat some of it.

Of course, as I said, the selection of Burmese dishes on the Friends Cafe menu is not large. There are currently six dishes in the Burmese Foods section of the menu and a couple in the Appetizers section. Surprisingly, neither khauk swe nor mohinga—two dishes that typically show up on Burmese restaurant menus— are on it. I was told that they’ve previously offered more/other dishes as well but aren’t very sure of how much interest there is in more of it. I sincerely believe that if more people go and eat the few dishes they do offer that interest will grow. So please go and eat their Burmese dishes and tell them you’d like to try more.

What did we eat?

There were six of us—four adults and our two boys. We started with three appetizers. From the non-Burmese end of things there were Thai-style Fish Cakes and Deep-Fried Chicken Wings with a sweet and sour dipping sauce. Along with these we got the Bu Thee Kyaw—deep-fried chunks of gourd/squash, served with a lovely tamarind-based dipping sauce. The fish cakes were very tasty but it was the chicken wings and the gourd that we were most enamoured by. Whoever operates their deep-fryer really knows what they are doing. I am not sure why we didn’t get their samosas as well.

For the meal proper we got five of the six dishes in the Burmese Foods section of the menu: three salads and two curries/stews. (Burmese names are not provided for these.) First up was the classic Pickled Tea Leaf Salad—we all loved this. We also liked very much indeed both of the noodle salads, which were very different from each other. The Chicken and Rice Vermicelli Noodle salad was bright and acidic with nice textural interplay between the soft noodles, the crisp chicken and the strips of onion. The Egg Noodle Salad  meanwhile featured al dente egg noodles tossed in a spicy, tangy and creamy dressing. We actually only ordered this after trying and liking the other noodle salad and for a couple of us this might have been our top dish at the meal. Two heavier dishes to follow. First up, the shrimp and eggplant curry: this resembles shrimp and eggplant curries you often see in Thai restaurants but is very much its own thing. And it’s very good indeed. Though I liked even more the Beef Stew (to Indian eyes, effectively a curry). Wonderfully balanced flavours and perfectly cooked beef. Nothing came out very hot/spicy but it’s easy enough to add heat to your taste via the chilli oil and chilli flakes in the condiments tray.

To end we got a couple of desserts: Thai-style Mango Sticky Rice and Burmese Ice Salad. The former was a consensus hit but the latter divided us. In fact, I was the only one who really liked its mix of textures and flavours. Think shaved ice with fruit syrup, condensed milk, peanuts and a bunch of different flavours of jelly piled on top of each other. I’m usually not a fan of this genre of desserts but I rather liked it. A few soft drinks rounded out our order.

For a look at the restaurant, the menu and what we ate, launch the slideshow below. Scroll down for thoughts on service, to see how much it all cost, and to see what’s coming next on the restaurant report front.

A word about the space. The restaurant looks a little nondescript from the outside but has a very pleasant and bright interior. The decor is tasteful with a large attractive mural (at least I think it’s a mural) dominating. It was quite busy when we arrived at 12.30; the rush eased around 1.30 but then as we were leaving closer to 2 it seemed to be picking up again. Service is provided by various members of the family that runs the restaurant and depending on the age of the family member who comes out at any point they may be more or less able to give you information on the dishes—but if you keep at it, a knowledgeable person will soon come out and happily explain things to you.

Price? With included 15% tip it came to $155. We added on a bit more in cash to bring the tip up to 20%. This was probably enough food for 7 adults—we over-ate quite a bit. So an effective price of $22/head. A steal, if you ask me, for food this distinctive and cooked this well. We will certainly be back again this year. And not just because I want to try the egg curry and samosas that we failed to eat on this occasion: word is their Boat Noodles are also very good. And, as I said, on the strength of this meal I suspect they turn out very good versions of the Thai dishes on the menu as well. If you have also not been/recently, I really do urge you to go. And I’ll urge you again to try the Burmese dishes, and if you like them, to express your interest in  trying more of it to the staff. On the other hand, if you have been, and have recommendations for other things to try, do let me know.

Oh, I do have another question: the restaurant across the street that I mentioned at the start is Nepali Kitchen. There seemed to be a sign outside it indicating it was open but Google says it is permanently closed—and when I tried calling to figure out what was what, nobody picked up. If you know the status, please write in below.

Alright, next up on the restaurant report front: the Seoul report I failed to post this past weekend and a report on one of my dinners in New York in late April. That’ll be later this week.


2 thoughts on “Friends Cafe (St. Paul, MN)

  1. Maybe it’s purely academic at this point, but south of Larpenteur (on both sides of Rice) is St. Paul, the northwest corner of that intersection is the southeast corner of Roseville (continue west on Larpenteur and you’ll encounter a Roseville City park; continue north and you’ll get to McCarron Lake, also Roseville); and the northeast corner of that intersection is a western edge of Maplewood (which has interesting serif-I-shaped boundaries). Currently there is an initiative to rebuild/upgrade that area and it involves all three cities because it has to.

    Next week our geography lesson will cover — oh, never mind! Thanks for the reminder on Friends. We frequently steer people to Cheng Heng as a different cuisine that is not very afar from cuisines with which they’re familiar, but Burmese would be a good destination, too.

    Liked by 1 person

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