Try Thai Again

Coconut shrimp, Laos lettuce wraps, and a daring durian dessert at Thai Bazil

RESIST, IF YOU CAN, the temptation to pronounce the name “Thai Bah-ZEEL.” It’s just plain old “BAY-zil,” like the leaf. Nothing fancy. Nothing frou-frou.

Somehow that Z makes Thai Bazil seem as though it will be more stylish than it actually is. Behind the restaurant’s modest exterior is an equally modest interior. There are lots of well-groomed potted plants and two large television screens beaming Thai pop karaoke into the dining room. The walls are spotted with empty plastic anchors, which suggest that the paint dates back to a previous tenant. The overall impression is that the décor—for now, anyway—is a work in progress.

So is the menu, though the combination appetizer plate introduced us to several delicacies we’d like to try again. The Thai coconut shrimp was a standout—crunchy on the outside, tender and sweet on the inside. And the angel wings—chicken wings stuffed with savory pork filling—lived up to their moniker.

Other fried standards, such as the pork egg roll and the cream-cheese wontons, were tasty enough but not appreciably different from their counterparts elsewhere. “My mother-in-law is always creating new dishes and trying to be more exotic,” says manager Sok Fin. “So you can have something you’re familiar with and something more unusual.”

Her mother-in-law is chef Nith Phouthavongxay, who spent 20 years helping build the local Sawatdee restaurant empire before opening Thai Bazil with her daughters and daughter-in-law. The restaurateur grew up in Nakhon Phanom, located in northern Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Laos.

Homesick Hmong will appreciate the Lao dishes tucked away on the back pages of the menu, such as ho mok gai, a mellow curried chicken, steamed in banana leaves, seasoned with galangal (a spicy rhizome also known as Thai or Laos ginger), and accompanied by steamed vegetables. The Laos lettuce wrap is a do-it-yourself production, starring a gorgeously grilled whole tilapia with noodles, lemongrass, and fiery chilies.

Photo by Eric Moore

We also tried several Thai entrées, including the chicken with ginger, which arrived with plenty of meat and crisp, stir-fried vegetables, all enlivened with the zingy bite of fresh ginger. The Thai Bazil Supreme, a seafood stir-fry, was fragrant with Thai basil and hot chilies. The pad Thai was a subtly sweet-and-spicy winner—it promises to be a serious contender in the ongoing who-serves-the-best-pad-Thai-in-the-Cities debate.

Desserts consist mostly of sticky rice or ice cream with fruit. One brave soul in our party ordered sticky rice with durian, a Southeast Asian fruit that has had a difficult time winning Western converts due to its powerful aroma, which is reminiscent of a dumpster in the heat of summer, with a soupçon of urine.

Our server tried to warn us—graciously, tactfully—but we were adamant about dispelling our region’s reputation for unadventurous diners. Unfortunately, none of us could manage more than a gooey sliver. Our server took the dish off the table and, despite our protests, off the bill as well.

But then we tried a bowl of shaved ice with sweet red beans, jellied fruits, and coconut milk. It was sweet, exotic, and comforting—a perfect antidote to our durian misadventure and consolation for having lost the Bah-ZEEL vs. BAY-zil debate.

Thai Bazil

704 University Ave., St. Paul
Lunch and dinner Mon.—Sat.
Appetizers $3—$15; entrées $8—$17