Tucked away in St. Paul’s Little Mekong district is the Sunrise Plaza, a small, nondescript shopping mall on University Avenue that’s home to a handful of Southeast Asian businesses. Step inside and find Hot Grainz, a Thai street food restaurant dedicated to bringing the vibrant flavors of Thailand to the Twin Cities. With a small kitchen and smattering of tables, Hot Grainz serves spicy, bright, pungent flavors that speak boldly to their sense of home.
Aunyamanee Ritneatikun (known by her nickname, Aun) opened Hot Grainz in August 2022 with the support of her boyfriend, Kalu Eh, and her mother, Yuwadee Poophakumpanart. Aun was born in Chiang Mai, the northern capital of Thailand, and moved to Minnesota in 2008 at the age of 12. Cooking has always been integral to her family: Her mom owned and operated a St. Paul Thai restaurant of her own for seven years, which Aun describes as serving “basic Thai food.” But rather than carrying on the family business, Aun wanted to start fresh with a new vision: serving Thai street food that pushes the boundaries of the Twin Cities Thai foodscape with its culturally niche dishes and bold, unapologetic flavors.
Aun serves Northern Thai specialties that are outside the mainstream, paying homage to her birthplace and her mom’s home cooking. And as part of a generation of young immigrants raised in the U.S., who are committed to honoring their cultural foods, Aun doesn’t sacrifice hard-to-find ingredients or traditional cooking processes that speak to the food’s sense of culture and place: The use of sugar cane juice or palm sugar in a savory broth, for example, allows for a more mellow, earthy sweetness that refined white sugar doesn’t capture.
“I wanted to focus on Thai tastes so that my customers who are from Thailand or have been to Thailand can feel the experience [of being home] with Hot Grainz’s food,” Aun says. “We selected certain items so that people can be out of their comfort zone. Because if you have pad thai or fried rice on the menu, what’s the first thing you’re going to get? You’re going to get fried rice, because it’s the safe food.”
Aun says there are certain business risks to serving unfamiliar foods and flavors in the Cities, where many Thai restaurants feature more familiar dishes like pad see ew, panang curry, and tom yum soup. “For some restaurants, it’s taking a risk to make [the food] full Thai — to make strong flavors, with the stinkiness of the fish sauce,” says Aun. “Some soups need to be really sour, but they don’t make it that sour. Curries have to be creamy and not too sweet, but some places make it too sweet.” But she put her fears aside to craft Hot Grainz’s menu, and trusted her love for the strong, funky Thai flavors she grew up eating. On the restaurant’s opening day, she served a long line of hungry customers and sold out her menu. These days, the No. 1 complaint Aun hears from customers is that Hot Grainz needs to move into a bigger space, but she’s in no rush to expand. Since the restaurant has only been operating for a year, she says, she has her hands full with menu experimentation and building her customer base.
Here’s an up-close look at five dishes from the Hot Grainz menu.
Kanom jeen nam ngiaw
Kanom jeen nam ngiaw is a rice vermicelli soup dish that’s famous in northern Thailand because of its specific regional ingredients. The dish gets its name from an edible flower, called dok ngiaw, from the red silk cotton tree. This brilliant red flower is traditionally dried and used in soups for its subtle floral aroma. Despite the rarity of dok ngiaw in Minnesota, Aun refuses to cut corners and imports the ingredient from Chiang Mai. “I always tell customers you have to eat the flower, don’t throw it away,” she says. “They think it’s garnish or it looks scary in the soup, but you have to eat it.” The flower takes on a fatty, mushroom-like texture as it’s steeped. The slightly sour, tomato-based broth owes its pungence to tua nao, a fermented soybean pancake common in Northern Thai and Burmese cooking. Topped with chicken feet and short pork ribs, this dish exemplifies the robust salty, sour, smoky, and fatty flavors and textures inherent to Thai cuisine.
Larb has become a commonly known Southeast Asian dish, but many Americans are unfamiliar with its regional nuances. Most commonly served in Minnesota is larb Isaan, a northeastern Thai-style larb. Hot Grainz, however, serves Northern Thai larb, which greatly differs in taste and aroma. Whereas larb Isaan’s iconic nuttiness comes from roasted rice powder and its bright acidity from limes, Northern Thai larb includes neither, instead attributing its strong, earthy aroma, with subtle, bitter undernotes, to a medley of warm, fragrant spices. Crucial to this special spice mix is mak khwan, a wild peppercorn native to northern Thailand. It’s a cousin of the Sichuan pepper, with less numbing properties and brighter, citrusy undertones. The spice blend also uses crushed long pepper, which lends the larb a sweet heat with its aromatic hints of ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Dry-roasted with salt, chili powder, and other traditional warming spices like black pepper and star anise, the result is a hearty, full-bodied dish paired with rice, crispy pork rind, and fresh lettuce to make wraps.
Khao soi, an increasingly popular Northern Thai dish, was not originally on Hot Grainz’s menu because of the dizzying number of steps and ingredients it requires. However, due to high demand, Aun decided to add it to the menu. Khao soi is an coconut cream chicken curry served with egg noodles and topped with deep fried crispy noodles, fresh shallots, lime, and pickled mustard greens. Hot Grainz aims to bring the “full-Thai” experience to local diners by making khao soi curry paste from scratch, and house-frying the egg noodles to create a crispy topping that retains its crunch in the broth. Similar to how you’d find it in Chiang Mai, the dish is served with a full chicken drumstick and quarter for the most succulent meat. Delivered from the streets of Chiang Mai to the heart of St. Paul, Hot Grainz’s khao soi balances spicy, fishy, sweet, and sour flavors with crunchy and creamy textures, rounding out a rich, soul-warming soup.
Khao mun gai
Two other street food dishes Aun highly recommends to first-time visitors are the comforting khao mun gai (chicken fat rice) and the umami-packed guay tiew nam tok (beef blood rice noodle soup). Aun says that when she was a child, khao mun gai was her favorite dish. “Anyone can boil chicken, anyone can make rice, but it’s the sauce that makes it special,” she says. Khao mun gai is served with a hearty portion of rice that’s been cooked in a chicken fat broth made and topped with juicy, tender chicken. Aun says that the best way to enjoy it is to pour the house-made ginger, garlic and chili sauce on top of the dish, and sip the complementary soup on the side.
Guay tiew nam tok
Guay tiew nam tok emulates some of the familiarity of Vietnamese pho with its rice noodles and five-spice undertones, but the comparisons stop there. This dish is known for its beef blood-infused broth, which gives the soup a dark, rich color. Combined with crushed red chili, fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar cane, one sip of the broth is a tangy, sweet, and spicy explosion. Aun chooses to prepare the dish with stewed, marbled beef heel for its tenderness. She suggests eating the dish quickly, before the noodles become too soft.