Royal Orchid (St. Paul, MN)
By Karen Cooper and Bruce Schneier
There's a great satisfaction in eating spicy food on a cold winter day. Pungent ingredients such as chili peppers transport us to hot climates. Thai is a great winter cuisine, and that's true even if you don't like spicy food. Thai dishes combine ginger, scallions, coconuts, peanuts, basil and more, in ways that get our taste buds out of hibernation.
Royal Orchid is a great place to experience the flavor combinations that make up the Thai palette. It's all about balance: sweet, salty, spicy, sour and bitter ingredients.
The appetizers were fine. Our favorite was the oyster sauce wings: the light and crispy batter was perfect dipped in the tangy ginger, scallion and oyster sauce. We also liked the chicken satay, marinated in coconut milk, grilled and served with peanut sauce. We missed the skewered presentation one sees everywhere else, though.
The curry puffs were good though bland, and the fish patty was tasty, although we wish it came out of the kitchen hotter.
Unfortunately, that complaint carried through the meal. Too many dishes were served lukewarm. We guess that they made them one at a time and kept them until all were finished. We'd much prefer if each dish were brought out when it was done.
One soup will divide well for six or eight people and makes a perfect starter. The tom yum soup, with lemongrass, lime, ginger and mushrooms, was exhilaratingly hot with chili flakes. The spiciness was nearly at that level where our vision starts to wobble a little.
Pad Thai really is the national dish of Thailand. Based on rice noodles, it's not generally very spicy. A little egg and some mung bean sprouts are stir-fried along with your choice of protein -- chicken is nice -- and a complex array of seasonings. Our group always includes a fussy eater, and he loved the Royal Orchid version. We don't steer our friends wrong.
We thought the tri-flavored fish was too tough, though the slightly sweet and spicy sauce was very good. The red spices paste, a stir-fry dish, was a disappointment.
The northeastern salad, which we had with ground beef and herbs, pepper and lime, was a treat, and the side of cabbage provided the exact crunchy sweetness to go along with it.
Curries are a Thai staple. We liked the green sweet curry, made with green chilis and Thai basil. The exceptionally fresh shrimp was wonderful here. The ginger brandy stir-fry is also tasty. A common aspect of Thai restaurants is that the protein is independent of the preparation. For most dishes on the menu, you can choose beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, scallops, seafood, tofu or mock duck. Thai cooking generally uses meat as an accent rather than as the central ingredient in a dish.
You can order dishes mild, medium or hot. We found that even the hot was pretty mild, and that often it was hard to distinguish among the three levels. Our guess is that the kitchen is modifying the recipes for Minnesota palates, so if you want your dishes with a traditional Thai spice level, you'll have to explicitly ask.
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