A friend once offered this advice for seeking out kid-friendly food: Look for rice-based cuisines. Mexican, Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian — rice puts so many delicious restaurants on the table (so to speak) when your kids are small. The kids eat the white stuff and you eat the good stuff.
And then you get to the point where you want your kids to eat something besides the rice. This usually coincides with the moment when sauces, greenery, and any single food touching any other food start to become an issue. Your food world starts to narrow and the taste of macaroni and cheese grows bitter in your mouth.
But, take heart, parents! There will come a day when you see daylight through the wall of once impenetrably narrow food preferences, when certain kids even start to show pride in their (comparatively) adventurous food choices. It’s your job to take advantage of this opening, to keep taking the kids to places that are fun, relaxed, and delicious and offer some opportunities for culinary challenges, as well as culinary autonomy.
Places, in fact, just like Wok in the Park, the bright and friendly (almost-)pan-Asian eatery in St. Louis Park.
We showed up with a bevy of kids (and a reservation — highly recommended) on a recent Sunday evening. We passed out the menus without comment and decided to let the culinary chips fall where they may. No, “Try this, Honey, you’ll like it.” No insistence on choices from one part of the menu or another. No mention of vegetables, even. We were fully aware that the kids’ end of the table might soon be filled with the restaurant’s beloved Puffs in the Park and other fried delights.
By the way, we didn’t have any dietary issues in our group, but there were many assurances on the menu and from our waiter that the kitchen can handle whatever special requests you throw at them.
Soon the summer rolls and edamame showed up. No surprises there: Some of these kids were practically weaned on summer rolls and edamame. Summer rolls are a.) white and b.) finger food and therefore acceptable from a very early age. And, salty, green pods of edamame can count as your protein, your vegetable, your starch, and your pre-meal entertainment all rolled up into one. Wok in the Park’s edamame passed muster and quickly disappeared. The summer rolls, however, faced a tough panel of critics. They were gobbled down but pronounced just “OK.” A little dry, a little bland, maybe?
Then came the kids’ entrees. And here’s where a little parental guidance might have come in handy. A family-sized entree, made to be passed and shared, was set in front of each small child. Whoops. The kids had all gone for noodles: pad Thai, pad see yew, lo mein, and a bún salad with egg rolls. It was a festival of starches at that end of the table. But those starches were bathed in brown sauces and scattered with pea pods, cabbage, bean sprouts, and carrots. And, once ordered of the kids’ own free will, those veggies were also eaten of the kids’ own free will. Yay for Wok in the Park and culinary autonomy.
On the adults’ end of the table, we shared a handful of dishes from the wok. They were all good, but once we got them on the plate, it was frankly hard to tell them apart. The sauces were all pretty one-note and almost indistinguishable — a tiny bit more garlic in the Slayer Stir-Fry, a tiny bit more sweetness in the Sunrise Stir-Fry, a tiny bit more heat in the Hot Sacred Basil. Note for the future: Just one order from the wok will suffice. Instead we dug into the kids’ leftover bún salad with egg noodles, an addicting mix of fresh and fried flavors.
Perhaps the problem was that none of them could live up to the amazingly crispy, bright, and fresh Green Papaya Salad that started our meal. It’s amazing how something so simple — unripe papaya, lime juice, peanuts, and plenty of heat — can be so satisfying.
As the restaurant filled up over the course of a Sunday evening, our server got scarcer and scarcer. It was hard, in fact, even to tell which of the overworked staff people was supposed to be our server. But, to a one, they remained unflappable and friendly, even as the dishes piled up and the line lengthened and a stack of napkins were inevitably called for.
So, take the kids? Heck, yeah, take the kids. Take somebody else’s kids. Take all the kids you can get your hands on. Wok in the Park is a great place to move beyond rice.
3005 Utah Ave S
St. Louis Park, MN 55426
CHEF / OWNERS: Jacob Johnson / Hannah Johnson, Charis Fishbein, Grace Johnson
BAR: Beer and Wine
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED: Yes / Yes, on busy nights
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $7-19