Supenn Harrison, who married a fellow student at the U shortly after she arrived here from her native Thailand, got her start making eggrolls for colleagues at work. Encouraged by their raves, she trundled them to the State Fair, where they sold out. So in 1979 she quit her day job, bought a diner on a seedy stretch of Lake Street and slipped a few Thai favorites into its eggs-and-burger mix. They sold like hot cakes (well, better than the griddle’s hot cakes), so she traded the fryer for a wok and renamed the dive Siam Café, where lucky Minnesotans got their first out-of-body inkling of just how tasty Thai food could be.
Since 1986, her iconic Washington Avenue location, resplendent with gold leaf amid statues of deities and elephants, has counted Neil Diamond, Mick Jagger and Julia Child among her fans and spawned many another Thai café, launched by chefs who got their start in her kitchen. Back in the day, her daughters pouted about “Mommy’s restaurant.” Today they’re proud to be her partners.
Pad Thai reigns as the national dish of Thailand, and it gets top billing here. Rice noodles (a boon to gluten-avoiders) are tossed with green onions, crispy bean sprouts, garlic, and a splash of fish sauce, then melded by an egg that gently thickens the mélange. A flurry of peanuts adds richness and crunch, and a final squeeze of lemon brightens the works ($10–13, depending on choice of protein).
Rama Thai Delight, named to honor Thailand’s king, is the most-requested dish on the menu, says Supenn. Instead of noodles, there’s a bowl of rice on the side. Lots of fresh, green spinach beds the protein (this time, we chose shrimp) coated in a rich, clingy sauce of red curry paste, fish sauce and peanuts, boosted by a pinch of chili flakes. Table condiments allow fire eaters to up the ante while party’s more demure Norwegians rest happy, if benighted.
Another favorite is Holy Basil Supreme — like, Holy Moley, Basil! These are no dainty, little Italiano leaves sizzling in the wok, along with garlic, the welcome crunch of sweet green peppers, satin-textured mushrooms, a drizzle of fish sauce, protein (beef for us) and “red chilies to taste.” Hey, cuts down on your heating bill.
We’d started with the mixed appetizer platter with its four attendant sauces — peanut, vinegar, sweet-and-sour and ginger — with which to flavor tendrils of beef satay (dry and overcooked) and cream cheese wontons (a brittle, boring American invention), both skippable. But what the heck: That leaves you with more room for the wondrous, fresh spring rolls that are Sawatdee’s forte, and a work of art. A slim shrimp silhouette shines through translucent rice paper, which further wraps crunchy, cilantro-scented rice noodles and greens. They’re as addictive as potato chips, but you won’t feel guilty in the morning.
Sawatdee offers a lovely wine flight, too: Riesling, Malbec and gently-sweet plum to accompany your green tea ice cream finale.
607 Washington Ave. S.