As an American, I’m always troubled by the arguments about “authenti-city” that descend into discussions about Asian restaurants. You surely have heard them: assertions that a particular chef is not really Thai, or a Sichuan chef is not really Chinese, or a sushi chef is not really Japanese. Claims that you don’t get the really good food unless you’re of the right ethnicity or dining with a partner of the right ethnicity. Like I said, as an American raised in a world in which people are supposed to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, everything in me bristles at this notion. What happens if you swap out Thai food and white customers for Scandinavian food and black customers? Imagine the protests that would erupt if applicants for a Scandinavian chef job were weeded out according to ethnicity, or if it were well known that black customers would be served lousy, dumbed-down Scandinavian food unless they dined with someone obviously born in Oslo? All right-thinking people would recoil from that—and I think even self-interested bigots would too, because any cuisine that operates from racial purity instead of merit diminishes itself. African-born Marcus Samuelsson probably deserves as much credit for the current revolution in Scandinavian cooking as anyone, so what part of authenticity is derived from passion, enthusiasm, commitment, drive, and talent?
Another thing I don’t like about the notion of authenticity is that it allows people to claim it as a trump card in arguments: if you say restaurant X is authentic, and I say restaurant X is bad, then your next gambit is to say the reason I don’t like restaurant X is because I don’t appreciate the authenticity.
The final thing I don’t like about claims of authenticity (See? I meant it when I said I really, really don’t like them!) is that they’re used to excuse all sins. Were the walls filthy? Well, that’s how they are back in the
motherland. Were the plates never cleared, the check never delivered, the service rude? If you were any kind of world traveler, you’d know you should pay extra for that!
And yet, as much as I recoil from this freighted, popular, trump-card notion of authenticity, there’s something to it that can’t be discarded. Sit in front of enough renditions of pad Thai and it becomes clear enough that some dishes aspire to a vision of lime and buoyancy, while others are merely sugary noodle-pudding. Authenticity is too useful a shorthand to get rid of when it becomes clear that restaurant X orients itself toward the traditions of another land and restaurant Y doesn’t.
No restaurant in Minnesota has been more enmeshed with notions of authenticity in the past five years than Bangkok Thai Deli. The original location (the back of a grocery store off St. Paul’s University Avenue) has become a cult phenomenon for its spectacular food and its setting, which is so awkward it seems like farce. First, you find the grocery store that reeks of old fish sauce and dust. Next, steer yourself past the young cashier desultorily cracking gum and texting. Finally, push through the side door into the windowless courtyard supplied with tables and photo-murals that look like they’re from a New Jersey diner circa 1973. When it comes time to order, no one will understand a word you say—and vice versa—but it’s awesome. Awesome! I never felt entirely comfortable steering people towards Bangkok Thai Deli for various reasons of ambience and service (authenticity be darned), but when I heard that the owners had opened a second location, Krungthep Thai Cuisine, in the former Seafood Palace smack dab in the middle of Eat Street in Minneapolis, I rushed over.
Holy basil, Krungthep Thai is the Holy Grail. Authentic as six stalks of lemongrass in your bowl of soup, friendly, polished, service-oriented: welcome to the new best Thai restaurant in the metro. What to get? Where to start?!
A couple of hor mok are a great kickoff. The curried versions of fish mousseline cooked in banana-leaf cups are creamy, luscious, and wildly perfumed. The lemongrass salad with shrimp is spicy, fresh, and exquisite, with thinly sliced scallions and galangal, plus three kinds of chili peppers, handfuls of herbs, and toasted cashews. The chicken larb is equally spectacular, the toasted rice powder giving the combination of ground chicken and spice depth while the fresh lime, herbs, and chilies give it dimension. The papaya salad is clean, spicy, gorgeous, and delicious. The red curry is another must-order. It’s light and lively, boasting the beautiful fragrance of kaffir lime leaves and perfectly showcasing little Thai bitterball eggplants, which acquire an almost anise-like freshness from the contrasting spice.
The service was truly charming. On a few occasions, I noticed my server breaking into a quick jog in order to get from kitchen to dining-room table with the greatest speed, and they were always Johnny-on-the-spot to refill water glasses and pots of tea with a smile. (As of this writing the beer-and-wine license they’ve applied for was not in place. That larb next to a beer will be a cheap-date joy.)
But wait, there’s more! This new Krungthep Thai actually offers quite a lot that its sister in St. Paul doesn’t, namely pricier seafood dishes, in the spirit of the former tenant, Seafood Palace. I tried a whole sea bass, steamed and covered with a beautiful emerald-green bed of finely minced herbs, garlic, and various chilies, and found it to be gorgeous, fresh, and delicious. The few things I tried that I didn’t love tended to fall into the category of workaday—not bad, but simply not soaring to the heights of Krungthep’s other dishes. The pork satay, for instance, was fried to a crisp and terrifically bland, and its two accompaniments—peanut sauce and a fresh cucumber-pickle salad—were not nearly as good as they are at the resolutely Western restaurant Chino Latino.
Is that unfair, to compare an Uptown big-money fusion spot to a tiny immigrant-driven start-up? I’d argue no, because when it comes to the rest of the menu, Krungthep can hold its own with the best in town, whether the measure is authenticity or a more universal standard, namely the sheer joy that comes from being served something staggeringly and knee-weakeningly delicious.
St. Paul’s Thai cult-sensation Bangkok Thai Deli brings bliss-inducing food west, at Krungthep Thai.
Ideal Meal: Start light and spicy with the chicken larb or the lemongrass shrimp (they’re similar), add a curry, and a noodle soup. Tip: Chicken-wing fanatics, take note: excellence here resides. Not particularly Thai, just crunchy, fat, and good. Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m.–10:30 p.m. Prices: Most entrées $7-$12. Address: Krungthep Thai Cuisine, 2523 Nicollet Ave., Mpls., 612-874-7721