Last time I went to Thai Café, the four tables inside the miniscule restaurant were filled with people, all enjoying a variety of curries, noodles and rice dishes. The kitchen was churning out food at a breathtaking rate. This was a stark contrast to my memories of going here freshman year, when the Green Line was under construction.
Three years ago, I could barely find the small storefront, hidden behind a vast construction plot. When I did find it, my table was the only one being served in the entire restaurant on a Friday evening. I hoped that it would survive the construction of the light rail, and thankfully, it did. The actual restaurant was better than I had remembered, but more importantly, how did the food taste?
It turns out the secret to Thai Café’s food was not the constant presence of construction workers. The food is as memorable as I remembered, from the pad se-ew to the sour pork ribs. Just like learning to swim, Thai Café allows you to either wade in through the shallow end and stick to what you know, or you can dive into the deep end off of a high diving board and experience a new, bizarre, wonderful Thai experience. If you want to become an Olympic swimmer, you start off by diving into the deep end (warning: I am not a swim coach, do not listen to my advice about swimming), and if you want to have the most memorable and enjoyable meal at Thai Café, you should start with the sour pork ribs.
At $12.99 and listed as an appetizer, it is the most expensive item on the menu, but absolutely worth it. A large plate comes covered with a huge pile of bite size fried pork rib-lets, most of them off of the bone, with garlic, chili peppers and fried kaffir lime leaves. The kaffir lime is a variation of lime that appears to be wrinkled and old, and yet its zest and leaves are frequently used in Southeast Asian cooking.
The waitress helpfully explained that to properly eat this meal, you take a small bite of the chili pepper (if you want it to be spicy) and then eat the pork and the lime leaf simultaneously. I recommend you at least try it with the chili pepper, as it was not too hot and definitely added an additional component to the meal. I became hooked after my first bite of these ribs. Each bite was simultaneously spicy, sour, sweet and savory and the novelty of the dish never wore off. It also numbed my tongue slightly, in a way that was somewhat akin to a Szechuan peppercorn. It wasn’t concerning, but for many people, this is a novel experience that, in my mind, is well worth having.
This dish is a particularly fun one to share with a group of friends as well. The unique nature of the ribs stimulates conversation and allows everyone to try something new. And, if you have weird friends who don’t like it, more for you! When I finished, I asked the waitress how it was prepared. She explained that the pork is fermented in cooked rice, which, scientifically speaking, fills the meat up in pure deliciousness. If you go to Thai Café, you should try this meal.
But perhaps you have arrived with slightly less adventurous friends, or you are scared that your date will become overwhelmed with your advanced knowledge of Thai food and become intimidated by you and you would rather wade into the shallow end of the Thai cuisine pool. Luckily, Thai Café has you covered with a range of more typical Thai meals.
Their Pad See-Ew is a great choice for those who are already familiar with a Pad Thai and want to experience something a little more exciting. It comes with wide rice noodles stir-fried with Chinese broccoli, eggs and your choice of meat or tofu. It’s not quite as sweet as pad Thai, and it allows the soy based sauce to shine through without overwhelming the flavor from the noodles. Ordering it medium spicy allowed the spice to come through in every bite with a little kick without being overwhelmingly spicy at all.
Their chicken Thai cashew and basil stir-fried both arrive in gentler sauces, steaming hot and with a real pleasant crunch to them. Served over rice, you can’t go wrong with either of these. However, between the two, I would go with the basil stir fried, which has a slightly more complex flavor.
Curries are also an integral part of Thai cuisine, and Thai Café’s do not disappoint. I’ve always been a particular fan of panang curry, and Thai Café makes one of the better ones I’ve had in Minnesota. Made with a coconut based broth, with peanut, lime and other flavors, it is simultaneously rich, light, and always delicious. Their green curry is also made with a coconut broth, as well as bamboo and eggplant, and is also a great choice. All of their curries are served with a small bowl of rice, and there is no bad way to mix the sauce with the rice, just make sure you don’t let any of the sauce go to waste.
Thai Café is the little restaurant that could. It survived the construction of the light rail and now appears to be thriving. With everything from the familiar to the unknown, it has a lot of options for anyone looking for Thai food, and will leave everyone happy and satiated. With friendly, efficient service and located less than a block away from the Western Avenue Green Line stop, Thai Café is well worth the trip. And please, try the pork ribs.