Eat & Play: We're Going to Jackson

Jackson Square Park, I mean. Just off Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, this neighborhood park is a great place for kids, with lots of grownup benefits too. First kid benefit? The wading pool has a zero-depth entry, which means it’s a gentle slope down from ground level into the water. Like a beach, the shallow water’s less cold and there are no steps or ladders to negotiate. Moms plunk swim-diapered babies on their chubby bottoms to splash near the entry, while older kids can play in the eighteen or so inches at the “deep” end. Near the entry are three water jets. My sons love to stifle a jet by sitting on it, then let it gush out, inflating their swim trunks. You wouldn’t believe how many times this is amusing to them. (Really. You wouldn’t believe.)

While they giggle, I take an art break, and contemplate the sculpture in the park. Just outside the pool area, “In Flux” is a spherical mix of steel, glass, and light. If the kids ever take a break from the pool, they can look and touch the art, plus climb over and around the nearby benches. Jumping off benches is good practice for the park’s next benefit, the playground’s newer equipment, which includes a nice tot lot, plus an area for bigger kids with a climbing web I’ve had to extricate my kids from more than once, and lots of things that spin really fast. I recommend eating AFTER the playground.

And what do I recommend for post-play eating? Thai at Sen Yai Sen Lek. As with other ethnic restaurants, it’s not my picky eaters’ first choice, but with trial and error, we’ve come to some reasonable compromises. This is especially impressive, since one of my sons refuses to eat rice. Or noodles that aren’t macaroni. He gets the chicken satay appetizer, while my other son likes the restaurant’s kid-menu offering of “Not-so-Isaan for Kids,” which pairs sticky rice with crispy chicken wings. The boys do like to order the lettuce wraps and assemble them, though whether they actually eat them can go either way. Personally, I’m happy to make and eat the wraps.

My current fave from the menu is the restaurant’s laab gai, which I’ve had with ground pork as well as chicken. In this dish, sticky rice accompanies warm, spicy meat on a cool, crunchy salad topped with shredded mint and lemongrass, dressed with lime juice, and dusted with toasted rice powder. It perfectly balances the notes of hot/sour/salty/sweet. I love this laab year ’round, but it’s especially good in the summer.

Finally, there’s dessert. I usually go for the mango and sticky rice, which is not too sweet, while the boys like to have a bowl of Izzy’s ice cream, one of many local foods on the menu.

A day of art and Thai food, plus my picky, rambunctious boys get their ya-yas out? It is possible—if you go to Jackson. What’s your go-to local spot?

Sen Yai Sen Lek, 2422 Central Avenue NE, Minneapolis, 612-781-3046
Hours: Monday–Thursday 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Friday–Saturday 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Closed Sundays.

Jackson Square Park, 2212 Jackson Street NE, Minneapolis, 612-370-3959, open daily 6 a.m.–10 p.m.