On Khumchaya couldn’t have picked a more challenging time to launch her On’s Kitchen, bravely situated a half-block from the Central Corridor light-rail construction. But few Thai restaurants possess the distinctive personality and heartfelt warmth of On’s. Walk in the door and you’ll find Khumchaya laboring away in her galley-style kitchen with the concentration of a diamond cutter. Only the very clueless would sit in her modest dining room and not be aware of her presence, whether it’s the sounds of woks clanging or the chef herself, gliding from stove to table, a glorious dish in her hands. It could be a magnificent whole steamed tilapia, scattered with thin-sliced lemons and greens and served with a gently sour garlic-lemon broth. Skipping the huh-mok is unimaginable; it’s a kind of fish custard singing with lemongrass grace notes and served inside a banana leaf shell. Ditto the fantastic, black olive-size pork sausages, which boast a willfully garlicky kick. The menu’s overwhelming, 100-plus roster spans the continuum of home-style and restaurant-style cooking, with street-food fare tossed in, but some diners might still fall back on familiar Thai-American favorites. And that’s OK, because there’s a fine pad Thai, crispy-edged chicken satays and freshly packed spring rolls. The restaurant may have cookie-cutter looks, but On Khumchaya makes her place a one-of-a-kind find.
This is a little gem of a lunch spot. Every time I go I cry a little watching people go through the Wendy’s drive-thru next door. If they only knew the delicious and fast lunch awaiting them here. There are only a few selections, but they do them right and serve it up quick! They have seating available upstairs. Right now they are only open Fridays due to the light-rail construction, but they sell frozen pelmeni and piroskhki to keep you going. Their pelmeni is to die for and the stroganoff is amazing. Think Moscow on the Hill but tastier and way cheaper. The owners are friendly and put as much love into their service as they do their delicious food. One of St. Paul’s best-kept lunch secrets. -- jen1212
- ABU NaDER GROCERY AND DELI: Middle Eastern. A hole-in-the-wall with an irregularly stocked tiny grocery store, Abu Nader makes some of the most surprisingly spot-on Middle Eastern foods around. The stuffed grape leaves are particularly delicate and delicious. --James Norton
- FASIKA: African standards — all served with house-baked injera, the springy flatbread that is to Ethiopia what the baguette is to France — at low prices.
- LITTLE SZECHUAN: Chinese. Combination of Americanized fare and more authentically Chinese dishes. Favorites include the Chung King chili shrimp and the kung pao chicken. A Szechuan cold spicy noodle was a surprise and a delight.
- TAI HOA B.B.Q.: Asian. Chinese- and Vietnamese-style barbecued and roast pork, chicken and duck, sold by the pound. What sets Tai Hoa apart is its other prepared foods, which include chicken-feet salad, pig-ear salad and several dishes that combine Asian vegetables with pig intestines and other parts of the pig anatomy. There are a few tables, but most of the business is carry-out.
- CARIBE BISTRO: Caribbean. This tiny family-owned joint packs a tremendous amount of flavor into a small space. The tightly focused menu pops with flavor, including some of the best conch fritters outside of the islands and killer piñon (a Puerto Rican casserole). Authentic Caribbean soft drinks are a nice touch. --James Norton
- MAI VILLAGE: Vietnamese. Creative menu offerings that go beyond the standard repertoire of imperial egg rolls and lemongrass chicken. The specialty of the house is Bò 7 Mon, seven courses of beef including several you prepare yourself.
- MUFFULETTA: American. Classic comfort favorites such as pan-roasted duck and chicken breasts rub shoulders at this comfortable St. Paul eatery with slightly less formal dishes such as a high-end mac and cheese and upscale burgers. --James Norton
- NGON VIETNAMESE BISTRO: Vietnamese/Fusion. Great pho, redolent of slow-cooked beef bones, anise and nutmeg, also shows Ngon’s dedication to locally raised meat and produce. Delicious dishes are crafted from Minnesota pork. Also stellar: duck confit with coconut-curry sauce, pudgy scallops seared to caramelized perfection.
- SOLE CAFE: Korean. What is authentic Korean food? Bright, bold flavors, deep, powerful pungency, a vast array of flavorful side dishes and a homey, comfortable vibe. One of the most exciting and soulful purveyors of Korean food in the area.