We’re spoiled in the Twin Cities. There are so many excellent South and Southeast Asian restaurants dotting the landscape that one couldn’t be blamed for feeling a little “ho hum” about green curry and tikka masala. If you find yourself seeking a cure for the same-old-curry blues, head to Friends Cafe, located in a strip mall at the intersection of Rice and Larpenteur. Sandwiched between a medical supply store and a pawnshop, this restaurant — with its welcoming but completely uninformative name — is the only place in town we’ve found serving Burmese cuisine. (Its “exotic food in far-flung metro location” profile reminds us of our visits to the Sri Lankan House of Curry in Rosemount.)
Friends Cafe is an inviting little room with clean, green walls and sparse decor that whispers, “Asian restaurant.” The tables are plain and decorated only with a bottle of fish sauce or soy sauce, if anything at all. It’s the kind of unstylish space that leaves the food with nothing to hide behind.
The cafe serves both Thai and Burmese food, and our server was quick to differentiate between the two. Burmese cuisine, she explained, is similar to Thai in that it is built around seafood and fish sauce, but it frequently contains bittersweet tamarind, and it isn’t spicy like Thai cuisine.
We skipped right past the familiar Thai dishes to the Burmese section of the menu and ordered shrimp and eggplant curry ($11). The dish was refreshingly simple. There were no surprise ingredients — just those on the marquee. The large, butterflied shrimp were expertly prepared: tender, yet firm. The succulent eggplant, heavy with oil, was a long, thin, purple-striped variety quartered lengthwise and cut into 2-inch sections. The oil-based sauce was heavy on garlic, with a taste of sweet chili and umami to spare. We ordered the stock version, but spice warriors can dial up the heat. Served with jasmine rice, the portion was generous, and the shrimp were almost as plentiful as the eggplant.
A tipster recommended Friends Cafe. We love this tip because with so many options for great Southeast Asian cuisine, this place could easily have gone unnoticed, especially given its nondescript location in the no-man’s-land between St. Paul, Roseville, and Maplewood.
Just as coconutty Thai curry and cuminy Indian curry are different beasts, Burmese curry is something else altogether, and well worth experiencing. Now go forth, ye curry-weary masses, and procure yourself a Burmese curry.
Friends Cafe, 1711 Rice Street, Roseville, MN;