Mini Bistro, Mega Delicious

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mini mango kitchen shot.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Mini Mango Thai Bistro opened this month in the downtown space last occupied by Bleaux Magnolia, and judging by the packed house and fifteen minute wait last Friday night, Napa's Asian food fans have already heard about it.  The place is indeed mini, as the majority of the seating at that location is outside on the fabulous (seasonal) patio.  But in a commendable show of restraint, the new tenants have not festooned the tiny indoor space with diminutive mangoes as you might expect from the name.  The look, like the cuisine, is minimalist and contemporary, with nary a mango in sight.
And wow is the food delicious.  Finally, Napa has some real Thai cuisine... seasoned with real Thai ingredients like kaffir limes leaves, lemongrass, and fish sauce.  These guys do perennial favorites like chicken satay, pad thai, and dishes with spicy peanut sauce, but they also whip out more unusual (and interesting) classics like meang kum (spinach leaf cups filled with toasted coconut, shrimp, ginger, shallots, lime, peanuts), curried kabocha squash, and grilled beef salad with mint and red onions.

The meang kum was superbly fresh and colorful, with layers of flavor and fun textures bursting out of the spinach wrapper.  Its accompanying sauce, while sweet, was not at all the cloying, flabby, gloppy mess you usually find in Thai restaurants more than 30 minutes from a metropolitan area.  A fabulously funky fish sauce, fresh ginger, and real palm sugar made the flavors pop and the hungry guests drool.  The classic chicken with steamed veggies and spiced peanut sauce (or "Peanut Bomb" as they call it here) also totally knocked it out of the park with its fresh flavors, juicy succulence, and a peanut sauce with coconut milk that really was--forgive me--the bomb.

The Indian fusion-sounding stuff on the menu is well worth trying as well.  Legume-Lime Chicken Salad was actually the surprise hit of the night for us, topping a mesclun mix with julienned green papaya, ginger, roasted coconut, crispy yellow lentils, and a chili-peanut dressing that almost made me lick the bowl.  Certainty that more peanut sauce was on its way was the only thing keeping me from doing it... and then ordering another one.

The wine list is entirely Californian, but with some quality options at fair prices.  Since the restaurant only recently got its license, we had the honor of being the first guests to order a bottle of the Domaine Carneros Brut bubbly they offer--which the owner celebrated with a deafening cork pop and charmingly shy grin.  I'm hoping he opened another bottle with his wife the chef later that night to celebrate the fantastic job they're doing.

In a word, go.  The restaurant is endearingly mini, mega-delicious, and open daily for lunch and dinner.

Mini Mango Thai Bistro, 1408 Clay St., Napa 707.226.888

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While it is exciting to see new and continuing interest in the Napa Valley, I fear a cultural globalization of food and a loss of food history. For every international food choice someone makes, it could conceivably mean a loss of interest in local style, or excitement over food of our ancestors.

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