Northeast’s Sen Yai Sen Lek Makes Thai A Neighborhood Staple

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By: Katie Fraser

Disclosure: Fraser is a contributor to Eat.Drink.Dish.Mpls, who sponsored the event at Sen Yai Sen Lek.

As with many places along Northeast’s Central Avenue, blink and you could miss Sen Yai Sen Lek’s storefront.

Seated just around the corner from Lowry Avenue, among a sea of Mexican restaurants, its red awning and warm lighting glow invitingly yet unassumingly.

But don’t let this lead you to believe their flavors are the same.

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Nine years ago, husband and wife team Joe and Holly Hatch-Surisook decided to take the plunge and open their own restaurant.

The pair had met while working in restaurants and, as many in the business do, would often talk about what they would do different if they owned their own spot.

They soon got married and got out of the business. Holly went on to work at the University of Minnesota and Joe became a stay-at-home dad to the couple’s two children.

But Joe’s drive to own a restaurant stayed, and he continued to curate recipes from his mother and create new dishes.

Finally, 12 years after they left the industry, Holly decided it was time.

“I was working late one night while at the ‘U’ and I thought, ‘If I’m doing late nights while doing this I might as well be doing it for our own business,” Holly said.

Thus, Sen Yai Sen Lek was born.

“My son, who was 5 at the time, had a different take,” Holly laughed. “He would say we opened because ‘My dad didn’t have a job so we had to open a restaurant!’”

Of course, it wasn’t quite that easy. The pair threw everything they had into the costs of location, construction, food and décor. 

Additionally, at the time there were no other Thai restaurants in Northeast Minneapolis.

Luckily for them, they found a welcoming community eager to have them join their neighborhood.

“When we opened, someone brought us an orchid and left it our doorstep with no note. Just saying ‘Welcome to the neighborhood!” Holly said.

They landed on the two-door store front in Northeast where they currently reside today.

At the time Holly felt it was too much space, but now they feel its just right.

Joe handles the menu and cooking, while Holly does front of house. 

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Their second room is often used to host events, where, on Tuesday, Eat.Drink.Dish.Mpls held their latest Exclusive Foodie Dinner.

The evening, which also included a pairing from Sociable Cider Werks, featured six courses, four Instagram contest winners and a visit from local artist Dylan. 

Joe greeted guests by sharing how he used recipes he learned from his mother to help create the restaurant. He then explained he crafted the evening’s menu using dishes that were both on and off the menu and really showcased traditional Thai cuisine.

Guests were greeted with a sampling of Sociable’s Training Wheels, a scrumpy (unfiltered) cider.

The first course was, as Joe described, quintessential Thai street food. Kanom Pang Naa Moo, which roughly translates as “pork covers toast”, was a pork toast with cucumber relish.

While seemly simple, the dish was layered with flavors and texture. The body of the toast soaked up the fattiness of the pork, becoming soft and doughy, while the crust stayed crispy. The softness of the toast and pork were offset by the crispiness of the cucumber, and the salty, fatty pork was cut with the tart vinegar from the vegetables’ marinade.

Next course was Laab Pla. As Joe explained, this is a salad commonly served in northeastern Thailand, often with chicken, pork or beef.

For Tuesday’s dinner, Joe decided to serve it with fried catfish.

Tossed in a fish sauce, along with lime juice, cilantro and mint each bite was filled with crispy, citrusy and earthy flavor.

This was paired with Sociable’s flagship Freewheeler, a dry cider made from a combination of Harrelson, Honey Crisp and Sweet Tango apples.

The third course was Tom Leud, a soup meant to act as a palate cleanser.

Joe explained that Thailand borrows several of its flavor profiles from the surrounding countries, like China, India and Cambodia. He said the soup’s name, Tom Leud, means “boil and bland,” but that bland in Thailand often just means “not very spicy.”

The daikon radish soup was made with fried garlic, a garlic broth, black pepper and a hint of Thai chili.

It served as the perfect bridge between the citrus, vinegar flavors of the appetizers and umami, rich flavors of the entrées.

To pair with the richness of the entrées, Sociable served its Hop-A-Wheelie cider. A dry cider brewed with hops to add a tart, grapefruit note to the apples.

The fourth and fifth courses were a noodle and curry dish respectively.

The Pad Kee Mao was made with flat, wide rice noodles mixed in a light soy flavor with mushrooms, chicken, onions and a light spice.

The curry, perhaps the spiciest dish of the evening, was also the least Thai inspired.

Highlighted as one of the dishes that borrowed the most from neighboring countries, the curry was made with coconut milk, pork belly and morning glory.

Served with rice, it created the perfect bite of creamy, crunchy, spicy and fatty.

Finally, the dinner was capped with sankaya and Rusty Chain cider.

Sankaya is a traditional dessert made of kabocha squash, steamed pandan custard and coconut sauce. 

The pairing, Rusty Chain, was a tart cranberry cider, whose tartness offset the silky sweetness of the coconut and custard.

While many of the dishes were exclusive to the event each was comprised of flavors found on their menu and in Thai tradition, something Joe and Holly pride themselves in.

“We wanted our restaurant to feel welcoming, like home.”

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View More Photos below > Photo Credit: Asha Belk

Sen Yai Sen Lek is located at 2422 Central Avenue NE in Minneapolis. For more information, call 612-781-3046 or visit them online.