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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: No / No
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No
ENTREE RANGE: $7-15