Laab Gai and Surly Hell at Sen Yai Sen Lek

Food Meets Beer Pairs Authentic Thai with Minnesota Beer

By John Garland, The Heavy Table
Photos by Natalie Champa Jennings
Sen Yai Sen Lek // Photo by Natalie Champa Jennings

Sen Yai Sen Lek // Photo by Natalie Champa Jennings

Joe Hatch-Surisook has been making some of the Twin Cities’ most lauded Thai since Sen Yai Sen Lek opened in 2008. Now his humble Northeast eatery with only three tap lines became a central hub for local brewers.

Asian beer with Pad Thai. It’s been done. You expect to see the dish right at the top of your local Thai place’s noodle list, accompanied by a scale of one to five hot peppers. And what to wash it down with? Lions, Tigers and Sapporos. Oh, bother.

In its element—say, on a riverboat slowly trolling the Mekong—the pairing would be both expected and divine. But in Minnesota, where snow falls in May, the pairing is both expected and tired. And since Pad Thai is often unbalanced (have you noticed that a few places are a bit heavy-handed with the palm sugar?), these malty Thai beers only act like a salve against sweetness overload.

So maybe it’s telling that Pad Thai is all the way at the bottom of the menu at Sen Yai Sen Lek (hereafter: SYSL). At Joe Hatch-Surisook’s Northeast noodle house, there is no spice scale on the menu because each dish has an appropriate balance.

He learned the importance of this balance while growing up in Thailand. “My mom was very specific that dishes have to be balanced,” he says. “And in trying to replicate the food she makes, and the flavors I remember, it seems to resonate with people.”

Sen Yai Sen Lek // Photos by Natalie Champa Jennings

Sen Yai Sen Lek // Photos by Natalie Champa Jennings

What is it about Thai food that always calls for a beer? Sure, a spätlese riesling is a classic pairing. But that seems outdated, especially because sweet wine often fails to respond to subtle flavors. The same goes for the alcohol in cocktails that often won’t play nicely against the screeching heat of a Thai chili.

“Particularly with beer, it’s not just the flavors that go together, it’s the culture about it,” says Hatch-Surisook. “In Thailand, when you’re sitting around having beer, it’s a graze fest. It’s Laab and Miang Kam and a lot of small bites. And you’re not really eating a whole lot, but you’re sated because the flavors are satisfying.”

SYSL’s menu is perfect for that kind of nibbling. It’s also light on its feet due to an impressive amount of vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free Thai options. SYSL offers so many they estimate one in three parties will come in specifically for how they handle those sensitivities.

But how did they become known as a central hub for the local brewing community? The credit goes to bar manager Nicole Pappas Stanoch. She’s the engaging and boisterous counterpart to the more reserved Hatch-Surisook. She’s kept SYSL committed to having only Minnesota beers on tap since opening, with one tap now specifically dedicated to suds from Northeast.

It always seems as if new and interesting Minnesota beer finds its way to SYSL with a predictably rapid pace. That, coupled with SYSL’s capacity of only three tap lines, proves that Pappas Stanoch clearly has her finger on the pulse of the local brewing scene.

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  1. bfmartucci says

    The Naam Prik Ong isn’t half bad either. If it’s chilly outside and you’re feeling extra hungry, it pairs well with a cup of the tom yum soup.

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