Supatra Johnson, a Thai cookbook author and cooking instructor, favors substance over style, and it seems her fans do, too. When she relocated her St. Paul restaurant to a new spot on West Seventh, her admirers followed—in spite of the nearby pawnshop. Johnson brightened the space with butter-yellow walls and pots of orchids, and then went into the kitchen to solidify her reputation as one of the best local Thai chefs.
Johnson isn’t the first to popularize Thai cuisine in Minnesota. That would be Supenn Harrison, founder of the Sawatdee restaurant chain, who started selling Thai food at the state fair in the ’70s, when most customers probably thought Phuket was a swear word. Today, there’s a Sawatdee in St. Cloud and pad Thai at SuperTarget. But Johnson is taking things further by offering Thai items rarely found at local eateries.
Traditional Hor Moke—shrimp and scallops steamed in a custard-like curry—is one of those hard-to-find dishes, and Johnson’s version makes regular red, yellow, or green curries seem downright pedestrian. The Crying Tiger—strips of beef that have been marinated and grilled to infuse a spicy, jerky-like char—is new to the menu, but has quickly become a favorite. Not every experiment works: The Goy See Mee, Thai-style chow mein, was interesting but skippable. Half the noodles were sautÃ©ed soft, the others fried crunchy, like a piece of Shredded Wheat half-sopped in milk (perhaps that’s why our waitress described it as being “like cereal”). If you prefer to stick with what you know, the spring rolls, lettuce wraps, and coconut shrimp are all safe bets, as is the pad Thai, its noodles slightly sweet, sour, and smoky, as comforting as kugel.
On the dessert list, the customary sticky rice with durian (the South Asian fruit that tastes like a creamy, tropical onion and smells like sewage) is joined by one of Johnson’s new creations: a fried banana egg roll served with coconut ice cream. It’s a dish that sums up Supatra at its best—a perfect blend of the exotic and the familiar.