On’s Thai Kitchen in Midway, St. Paul

You’d never know it, but an unassuming new restaurant on University and Snelling is turning heads.

The restaurant, started by the woman formerly behind the food at Bangkok Thai Deli, opened in a whirlwind — previous tenant Cafe BonXai closed up shop November 30; On’s opened for business on December 2. Although many aspects of the place are still in development — most notably, the lack of visibility (thus far, the only indication of On’s location is a small tagboard sign in the window) — the food is spot-on. Ranging from well-executed standbys to true standouts, the 67-item menu samples the gamut of options from spring rolls to curry, including a number of dishes you just can’t find much of anywhere else in the Twin Cities.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

One such (relatively rare) dish, Meing-Kum ($10, above), is the crowd-friendly “choose-your-own-adventure” of appetizers — you determine how each bite tastes by piling different proportions of eight ingredients into a single lettuce leaf. Dried shrimp, fresh ginger, hot peppers, lime, red onion, peanuts, and crispy toasted coconut make for a bright, spicy combination loaded with texture contrasts and rounded out with a thick, sweet sauce. A more standard option, On’s Spring Rolls ($4; shrimp and pork or mock duck) burst with flavorful pork and cilantro; the sauce improved upon the typical one-note, sweet peanut sauce with a nice, spicy kick.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

The thick noodles available with Lad Na ($8, above) are around an inch wide, soft, and chewy — more of a Midwestern-style hot dish material than an al dente Italian creation. Topped with chicken, bok choy, slightly crunchy rounds of carrots, and a thick gravy resembling a subtler, more complex mild brown sauce, this dish could easily pass as comfort food for the average Minnesotan. Ka-Paow-Pa ($11, below), which we were warned was “for the adventurous eater,” comprised a mild, gelatinous broth studded with tender pieces of chicken, soft-boiled quail eggs, shiitake mushrooms, and fish intestine. Though the large size and visceral idea of eating fish intestine may seem unpalatable, the pieces look like lightly breaded, deep-fried pieces of tofu and instantly collapse in your mouth, much like the way a light pinch can easily crush an old-school, low-density packing peanut. The soup, meanwhile, comes with a huge wheel of seasonings, ranging from sugar and spice to vinegar-soaked serranos and kapi (shrimp paste). Add a couple spoons of the bright red, vinegar-based hot sauce, a scoop of sugar, and a bit of kapi, and the dish transforms from a bland broth into a zippy, flavorful soup.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Even the standbys — those dishes a takeout devotee has probably eaten a million times — emerge from On’s Kitchen with a little bit of flair. Egg Rolls ($3; pork or vegetarian) seemed a cross between the Chinese takeout and flaky Vietnamese versions — loaded with pork and cabbage, they feature a cohesive, but not thick wrapper. Pad-Ga-Pow ($8), a beef dish with holy basil, onions, and red and green bell peppers, offers a more complex flavor profile and crunchier peppers than the comparable dish at other restaurants. Nam Thuk ($8), a thinly sliced steak salad, provides the traditional salty-tart flavor profile, punctuated with the nutty grit of a healthy sprinkle of toasted rice powder. And the thin, lime-and-lemongrass-tinged broth of On’s Tom Yum ($9, below) goes down smooth, while succulent mushrooms and whiter-than-white slices of chicken add substance. Try it with coconut milk; the coconut balances out the soup’s strong hit of lime.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

On’s desserts, which change by the day, go well beyond the sticky rice and mango so ubiquitous at local Thai restaurants. A recent offering included Med Kanoon ($3, below right), bite-sized egg-and-sugar-coated yellow beans that shone like egg yolks. Foy Tong ($3, below left), also known as “Angel Hair,” was a vibrant golden “pasta” painstakingly made by drizzling egg yolk in thin strands and coating it with sugar. Though intriguing in presentation, the texture was definitely an acquired taste — unlike the cohesive texture of traditional grain noodles, the Foy Tong requires plenty of chewing and gets stuck in all the most obscure corners of your mouth. The definite favorite, though, were the neatly packaged (à la Oaxacan tamales) Khao Thom Mud. Almost like a more cohesive, banana-tinged rice pudding, the dessert was studded with black beans and filled with an earthy bean paste, then wrapped in a banana leaf. At three for $3, these tasty morsels are practically a steal.

Sarah McGee / Heavy Table

Unlike many new restaurants — which focus heavily on a concept and design, sometimes at the expense of a strong value proposition (consider Sauce, Ringo, and any of the other short-lived eateries of last summer) — On’s has a solid, cheap, well-executed menu. Plans are in the works to print both a sign for the building and an eight-page menu with pictures to simplify the ordering process. With her top-notch food and a bit more time to develop the space and make it her own, On has an excellent chance of success.

BEST BET: Get the Lad Na — the mild, subtle sauce has universal appeal, and the wide, thick noodles possess a certain chewy je ne sais quoi.

On’s Thai Kitchen
Thai Cuisine in Midway, St. Paul

1613 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55104
Sun-Sat 9:30am-9pm
BAR: None

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Maja Ingeman

The daughter of an artist and a music teacher, Maja spent much of her childhood traveling the country in a rusty old van, attempting to model all of her father’s salable jewelry at the same time, and sampling the many edibles available both on the road and at the art fairs they visited. Though she now lives in Minneapolis, the coffee addiction and love for food that she picked up en route to one of their many destinations never left her. Between marketing work in the medical device industry and poring over the Harvard Business Review, she can typically be found holed up in her kitchen, baking bread every weekend and experimenting in between.

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  1. Excellent review of an excellent place. The food at On’s is truly amazing! Nice job Maja!

  2. One small correction, they are also open Monday’s same hours, On is working 7 days a week to make sure you are well fed!

  3. Just stopped in for the first time this past weekend – quite good, will definitely be back.

  4. MenschMaschine 01/29/2011 Reply

    I’ve been to On’s twice now…. and WOW. This place is so unbelievably good. Without question the best Thai food I’ve had in MN (by a wide-margin). Supatra’s and Rum Mit Thai are still great venues, but On’s is in a league of its’ own.

  5. Based upon a Trib review on Thursday, February 17th, we ate at On’s Kitchen on Saturday. The place was jammed and the food was divine. Visited with On as the place was closing and what a delightful woman and family. Taking a friend there for lunch today and have forwarded your url review to several friends already. Great job…your review was spot on!!

  6. Wondering if they have a liquor license or have a corkage fee?

  7. Michael 04/08/2011 Reply

    Had a friend go there who was not impressed, so I will have to try it for myself now. So far ‘Bangkok Thai’ is by far my favorite!

  8. The food here is very good, but the service is atrocious. The first times I’ve been in there, the service was slow and the food took a long time to arrive – the last time I took friends there, it took forever to get a server, then to get him back to the table to order. Our food arrived after another long wait, but just one plate at a time spread out every three minutes or so so that it took our party about 20 minutes for the last person after the first. I stopped in once after, to get an order to go and after waiting ten minutes to finally get someone’s attention and then another couple to get them back so I could ask to order, I was told it would take an hour. You expect problems like this when a place first opens, but they’ve been open for months now and should have their act together. The next time I want to take friends for Thai, I’ll find a place that has both good food and service. Too bad – it’s a neighborhood place I’d like to support.

  9. Loved the food. Crab cakes were tasty, Spring rolls nice and fresh, but it was the coconut soup that blew me away. My friend had super fresh, genuine Pad Thai with (finally!) a nice hot kick not all gooed up with sugar. Our wait didn’t seem long at all, and our waiter was all smiles. Will def be back for another amazing meal.

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