At ten minutes 'til close on a quiet weeknight, nobody looks at us disappointingly when we waltz through the door ready to order. A cashier efficiently, yet contentedly passes us some menus. There's none of that ambiguous attitude because the kitchen is trying to close.
The kitchen is open.
After putting in our order, the distinctive sounds of chopping, slicing and mortar-and-pestle pounding ensue. The kitchen is open at ten minutes to close, and our order is starting, from scratch.
Sandwiched between better-known Bangkok Thai Deli and On's Kitchen on University Avenue sits tiny and easy to miss Thai Cafe. It's a simple a storefront with a handful of tables, a saving-grace sandwich board on the sidewalk, and the generic un-fancy fluorescence of many of the Avenue's eateries.
But out of the kitchen comes color, grace, and bracing vigor.
The place is run with professional aplomb by mother-daughter team Ya and Aun Poophakumpanart. If you're unsure what to order, take a gander around the room and point. Many dishes are posted on the wall complete with photographs. Or, just follow our directions here and you won't go wrong.
Begin with the sour pork ribs, fire-engine red niblets of pork, clinging to the bone just tightly enough that you have to work for it a bit, but tender enough to melt your resolve. I know of no better drinking snack in town. A pile of these and a bucket of beers is an instant party: hot, sour, funky, fermented, and messy with sticky chew. We want them again and again.
Also not to be missed is their version of green papaya salad, that now-ubiquitous mixture of shredded unripe papaya, Thai eggplant, long beans, tomatoes, carrots, and chiles bound with an intoxicating brew of fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, lime, and sugar. When ordering, you'll be asked how many chiles you want in the mix, and we found that two was the ideal balance: fiery, but not so much so that you'll be double-dog-daring your companion to eat it. But note that if you are a spice-fiend, ask for your food spicy. Our request for medium was a little too tame; our only mini-complaint of the night.
Classic dishes of beef larb and red curry were textbook-perfect, featuring onions and chiles that look cut by a laser, and enough long leaves of culantro (a stronger cousin to cilantro) and mint to bring to mind an evergreen patch. If theres a more refreshing salad anywhere we don't know where it is.
The curry was delicate and buoyed more by basil, ginger, lemongrass, fish sauce, and kaffir lime than cloying coconut milk that lesser versions rely on. Here, the coconut tastes almost like an afterthought; just the lightest whiff for balance.
Thai Cafe is also rumored to have the finest pad Thai in town, and if you think they are all created equal, we have been told to think again. If the cooking prowess above is any indicator, we have zero doubts.
371 University Ave. W., St. Paul