Cassoulets may be good for the winter, but no one wants a piping hot dish in the summer unless it’s fresh off a grill. Enter the ever-refreshing, oft-overlooked salad. If you’re already sick and tired of the myriad variations of mixed green, caprese, or fruit salads, try your greens in a new way. Som tum, a Thai papaya salad, plays host to a variety of textures ranging from crunchy to chewy — the tangy zip of lime juice and salt of fish sauce highlight the slight sweetness of green papaya. Laab esan, a ground beef salad, features fresh mint, toasted rice powder, green onions, and the salty-tang of the fish sauce / lime flavor combo. Wrap it up with some sticky rice in a lettuce leaf and you’ve got the ultimate in refreshing summer food. We tested these dishes from four Thai restaurants across the Twin Cities to produce the tasting notes which follow. If you prefer to experience food in your own kitchen, try the recipes below.
Among the multitude of Thai eateries in the area, we selected locations including Sen Yai Sen Lek in northeast Minneapolis, Ruam Mit Thai in downtown St. Paul, True Thai in Seward, and Pad Thai on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. Each restaurant offered its own spin on the dishes, but among them we sought a light, balanced option which didn’t overly stress a salty, tangy, or sweet note over all others. The som tum had a lower variance across the board, while laab from one restaurant tasted quite different from the next.
Pad Thai’s version featured big chunks of tomato and a middle-of-the-road flavor — not very strongly flavored in any which way. At $4.95 per serving, this was the most economical of those we sampled. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s was, on one visit, the sweetest of the four due to an ever-so-slightly riper papaya — jazzed up with a bit of nam pla prik, or spicy fish sauce, the dish worked quite well. The shredded dried shrimp on top provided a welcome, slightly fishy dimension. True Thai’s version added a bit of shredded carrot to the papaya-tomato-green bean base, which made for extra crunch and sweetness. Ruam Mit Thai, meanwhile, serves their version with small dried shrimp atop the bed of papaya. A thin-sliced, slightly sweet-and-spicy beef jerky served on the side adds a chewy texture to the mix and a bit more substance to those afraid of going vegetarian.
In terms of flavor, these salads were a bit more varied. The version from True Thai, the only one comprised of finely chopped, thinly sliced beef (as opposed to ground beef) featured a tangy, well-balanced flavor and was the best-tasting after a night in the fridge, due to its chewy texture. Ruam Mit’s version, the best-seasoned of the bunch, was an ideal balance of salty-tangy-spicy, tempered by the traditional sticky rice, cucumber, and lettuce leaves. On a recent visit, Pad Thai’s rendition prominently featured off-puttingly sweet sautéed red onions, while on another occasion we were served an overly peppery version of the salad. Sen Yai Sen Lek’s laab gai (the restaurant serves only chicken laab, pictured below) brought the zing of sliced lemongrass to the forefront, with the nuttiness of the toasted rice powder to temper the flavor.