Read The Mix
Sen Yai Sen Lek: Superb Thai Cooking, Balanced and Intense
By Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper
Sen Yai Sen Lek is the sort of restaurant where people become “regulars.” You find yourself heading down there a couple of times a month because you’ve got that craving for pad see iew gai. We’ve noticed on our visits a surprising amount of convivial chatting between the front house staff and the customers.
That pad see iew gai is perfect Thai comfort food, a better dish than the pad Thai, which too many of us default to when ordering in a Thai restaurant. The Chinese broccoli, marinated chicken, and wide rice noodles in sweet soy sauce is so good that some of the regulars never order anything else.
We like the street-food character of the menu. Of course they serve chicken satay, and do a fine job of it. The spring rolls are also first-rate. But we really loved the fish cakes: tod mum. These are slightly curried fish cakes, fried and served with peanut sauce and a cucumber salad that’s good enough to be on the menu all by itself. This dish starts to explore the range of the Thai flavor palate: sweet, spicy, pungent. Maybe the best appetizer is maing kam. They serve a stack of lettuce leaves alongside little mounds of chopped onion, fried shrimp, hot Thai chilies, peanuts, coconut, ginger and lime with the rind. You put bits of all this aromatic deliciousness into a piece of lettuce and dip it in a shrimp sauce. The salty-sweet-sour-hot combination is perfect.
Main dishes come based on rice, sticky rice, or noodle dishes. Try the khao pad kapi: royal fried rice with dried fried shrimp, pork, mango, egg, green beans, shallots, and enough Thai chilies that you’ll probably pick some of them out. This is another fabulous flavor combination. We also liked the basil heavy pad bai gra pow.
Sticky rice dishes are also good. Order naem tod—pork sausage seasoned with garlic and lime, served with ginger, peanut, onion, and Thai chilies. Also the nuea yang naam tok: sliced steak with lime, onion, mint and cilantro. Both of these offer complex flavors, beautifully balanced.
Ba mee haeng is a different noodle dish: barbecued pork, lettuce, garlic, bean sprouts, and cilantro served over thin, rich, slightly chewy egg noodles.
Our one disappointment was a noodle soup: geow naam moo daeng. The wontons, vegetables and egg noodles all in chicken broth had none of the potent flavor of other dishes. It wasn’t bad, but it just wasn’t as good as everything else on the table. You’ll do better with the excellent tom yum soup, available as an appetizer or a main course. Tom yum (like pad Thai) is one of those “default” dishes, but this is a very good version.
Sen Yai Sen Lek brings us the intense and balanced flavors of superb Thai cooking and doesn’t try to incinerate you with chilis. All this flavorsome deliciousness draws crowds, and sometimes you might wait for a dinner table on weekends, so calling and making a reservation—especially if you’ve a larger party—is always advisable.
Bruce Schneier and Karen Cooper are longtime food lovers and occasional food writers. They live in South Minneapolis.
Sen Yai Sen Lek
2422 Central Ave NE
Cuisine Type: Thai
Reservations: Not required, but advised
Diet Choices: All diet restrictions will eat well here.