Picky, Picky, Picky

Mina's Thai offers a cozy décor and friendly service--but where are the nuanced flavors?

I am a picky eater. That's my job.

Keep that in mind as I describe Mina's Thai. This family-run business, which has had several incarnations around town, is now tucked into a quaint little space at River and Craycroft roads, and there's much to like about the place. The service is genuine and friendly; the prices are reasonable; the restaurant is clean and tidy. But the food is ... well, that's where the pickiness comes in: On both my visits, the food was decent, but not spectacular. Chances are, 95 percent of those dropping in to Mina's Thai would have no problems whatsoever with the food. But being picky ... I can't help but feel a little disappointed, given the stellar reputation that Mina's has built in foodie circles over the years.

Garrett and I first visited Mina's on a recent weekday evening. The restaurant is cozy: About a dozen tables occupy the five-sided dining room (it's shaped like a slightly distorted baseball home plate). The walls are an extremely light purple, and the office-style drop ceiling is dark purple. Track lighting makes the room well-lit, and pictures of Thai royalty and women with fruit join green plants and a couple of shelves with knickknacks to spruce up the décor. A small gurgling fountain and traditional Thai music at a low volume please the ears. With the cozy feel and the warm service, it's hard not to feel welcome.

The regular menu offers eight appetizers, a half-dozen soups and about three-dozen entrées (an impressive 10 of which are vegetarian). I love Thai food, and we eagerly ordered some of our favorite dishes for starters: the yum neau (Thai beef salad, $6.95) and the tom kha gai (chicken coconut soup, $9.50). For my entrée, I picked the padd Thai ($8.95), and Garrett ordered the pad kaprow (chicken with mint leaves, bamboo, green beans and bell peppers, $8.95). We ordered all of our dishes medium-hot, except for Garrett's pad kaprow, which he ordered "beyond Thai hot." (He doesn't believe there's such a thing as too hot. Yes, he's weird.)

After chatting with Mina's husband about the status of the restaurant's liquor license (it's currently a BYOB place), we received our soup. My mouth watered as I ladled out the concoction of chicken, coconut milk, mushrooms, lemongrass, lime juice, cilantro, onion and other ingredients. And upon my first sip, I was ... well, underwhelmed. I couldn't taste any of the citrus, and as a result, the coconut milk made the soup sweeter than most tom kha gai soups I've had before. It could have also used a bit more chicken, and a little more nuance to the flavor. Garrett pointed out that tom kha gai often comes with large pieces of flavorings such as galanga root and lemongrass that are inedible; these large chunks were absent from this soup--there was lemongrass, but in very small pieces--and that might have explained the lack of flavor complexity. The soup was still decent, just not as good as other soups we've had.

The yum neau offered a bit of redemption. The thinly sliced beef with cucumbers, onions, mint, lemon juice and a lettuce wedge was refreshing and tasty. The beef was tender and full of flavor, and I was sad when my half of the dish was gone. Garrett noted that the dish wasn't as vinegary as some we've had before, but that's a minor complaint.

Soon came the main courses, and we dove right in. My padd Thai--which I had ordered medium-hot--had no kick at all. That wasn't the only thing it was missing, sadly: Like the soup, the padd Thai was lacking complexity, and was overly sweet. Yeah, all the usual ingredients were there--thin rice noodles, egg (and lots of it), peanuts, green onions, cilantro, bean sprouts, etc.--but the seasonings were not. Meanwhile, Garrett was enjoying his dish more than I was enjoying mine. The chicken and vegetables (served with white rice) were swimming in a watery sauce that had a lot of kick, although again, it lacked nuance. The mint and the spicy heat drove the flavor, leading to a dish that Garrett said was good, although he felt it could have been better.

Mina's offers homemade coconut ice cream ($2.25) and a fried banana ($2.25) for dessert. We chose the third option--the banana with the ice cream on top ($3.95). Dessert was the meal's high point. The ice cream was delicious, and the banana--cut in two pieces with a wonton-like skin--was cooked perfectly, slightly caramelized. It was a wonderful ending note.

I returned a couple of days later for lunch. On weekdays from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Mina's offers nine lunch specials for $7.50. They come with an entrée, a vegetable egg roll, soup and white rice. I walked in about 1 p.m. and ordered the green curry special with chicken, and within two minutes, Mina brought the soup--starring cabbage and egg with what tasted like a chicken base. It was simple, yet pretty good.

Less than five minutes later, she brought the rest of the food. The egg roll--which had a soft, orange-colored shell--was pretty standard, and the green curry--following the trend that developed during our dinner visit--was only OK. Again, I ordered it medium-hot, yet its spiciness was negligible. The dish featured chicken, coconut milk, bamboo shoots, basil leaves, green beans and bell peppers (I asked if I could get the dish without the bell peppers; I was told I could, yet a handful still made it into the mix), and you'd think the chicken and the curry would drive the taste. You'd think wrong: The coconut milk and the green beans announced their presence loudest. I ate enough to feel satisfied, paid my bill and left at about 1:20. While the food was only so-so, I was impressed with the efficiency that allowed me to get in and out in 20 minutes.

I really like everything about Mina's, except for the food--there were no bad dishes, but only the yum neau and the dessert were really good. Maybe I am just being picky. But then again, that's my job.

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