By Phyllis Louise Harris
When he was six years old, Thom Pham had already taken the first steps that would lead him to his lifelong passion – the business of food.
His grandmother Bo ran a catering business in Vietnam and put him to work at that early age scraping carrots. As he grew older other kitchen jobs were added to his repertoire as well as other aspects of the food business. His grandfather, a salesman who travelled throughout Vietnam, often took him along on his trips stopping at a variety of restaurants along the way. When he returned home, Thom had a long list of new dishes for his grandmother to show him how to make. So by age fourteen when he was sent to Minnesota to live with a sponsoring family, Thom was well schooled in the food profession.
Some people call cooking a trade. But, in Thom’s hands it is more like a profession that includes not only the quality and creativity of the food itself, but its presentation, the surroundings, the staff’s attitude and the whole dining experience. His first restaurant, Thanh Do in St. Louis Park, was a winner from day one with diners lined up outside the door even on cold winter days.
He found the Kowloon Chinese restaurant across from the Texa Tonka Mall the perfect place to try his version of Asian fusion where, he says, “Asian spice meets Minnesota nice.” The owner Jack Der was a former chef at the famous Nankin Chinese restaurant in downtown Minneapolis and had decorated his restaurant with items from the Nankin. His menu also included some of the popular Nankin dishes dating back to 1919. When Thom bought the restaurant he kept some of the menu items for longtime Kowloon customers and included some of the old decorations in the modern space he developed for Thanh Do. But, the rest was purely Thom Pham who took Minnesota’s bland walleyed pike and turned it into an Asian treat covered with spicy jalapeno and Thai basil sauce. Or the ubiquitous holiday cranberries and gave them a special place in curry sauce and cheese puffs. (“I hate cranberries,” Thom once admitted, so he decided to find a way to make them likable.)
In the fifteen years Thom has been running restaurants in Minnesota, he has garnered a following of fans including new ones in Woodbury. Opened in February, the newest Thanh Do is just down the street from the Woodbury Commons and Walmart, in the heart of this newly developed walking/living community. The space is modest, but open and cheerful, combining as he always does, the old with the new. The full bar offers a variety of original cocktails as well as happy hour specials.
Take a good look at the black lacquered wood and red vinyl chairs – they are originally from the old Nankin and fit perfectly into this modern suburban setting. The menu is purely Thom Pham with favorites such as Spanker Soup, Cranberry Puffs, Thom Yum, Vietnamese Coconut Curry, Korean Style Short Ribs, Rack of Lamb, Cedar Grilled Salmon and so much more. One of my favorite meals is the beautiful and delicious Wonton Soup in Thom’s homemade chicken broth with perfectly cooked fresh vegetables and flavorful pork wontons followed by Thom’s Banana Roll for dessert. It is a fresh banana wrapped in an eggroll wrapper, coated with cinnamon and fried then served with coconut ice cream – nutritious, decadent and delicious!
It has been 15 years since I first wrote about Thom and his original Thanh Do and found this young, enthusiastic, talented chef such a delight. I have written about each of his endeavors along the way and am so glad to see this new one is again a reflection of his eternal optimism and joy of life. But best of all it is a showcase of his ever evolving culinary pursuits that offer us a variety of new flavors and treats to enjoy. Go see for yourself.
Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on amazon.com.
Buy online: Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875
Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: http://www.mnvideovault.org/mvvPlayer/customPlaylist2.php?id=24552&select_index=0&popup=yes#0