A Sen-sational hidden gem

It’s a good thing that Sen Thai Asian Bistro marks its presence at 13th and Locust with tall crimson banners; unfamiliar as we were with the neighborhood, we’d have zipped right past it. Tucked away behind the main branch of the St. Louis Public Library and sandwiched between office buildings, this Asian bistro revealed itself as a hidden gem.

The boys were inquisitive from the get-go, trying to get us to explain Thai cuisine on the drive downtown. But once we walked in the door, thoughts of food were pushed aside by the sparkling décor. Glittery silver and gold baubles marched in rows along the walls, and decorative masks stood guard over the bar. Even the flatware was golden, which really amused the boys: “It’s not silverware, it’s goldware,” Brendan declared.

What really stood out, though, were the elephants. Elephant drawings, elephant paintings and ornately decorated tusks commanded our attention; we came to find out they’re a national symbol of Thailand. So, surrounded by a veritable pack of pachyderms, we perused the menu.

At nearly every Thai restaurant I’ve been to, the portions have been huge. Since there was no specific kids’ menu, we decided that getting both Brendan and Duncan a full entrée each might be way too much food. So we ordered them the Singha Platter, a selection of four different appetizers. This, we figured, was a smart way to let them sample from a wide array of dishes without busting our budget or wasting food.

Kathy and I tried a pair of noodle dishes with pork: the Bamee BBQ Pork for her, with egg noodles, crispy pieces of garlic and a sesame sauce; Bangkok Spicy Noodles for me – a mound of rice noodles topped with pork slices, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts. As expected, both were substantial portions.

The boys started with Thai Spring Rolls, which are fried to a crispy brown, like egg rolls with a thinner wrapper. Being obvious finger food, these vanished almost immediately. Next up was chicken satay – marinated grilled chicken on skewers. Though we tried to get them to use the accompanying peanut sauce to dip their chicken, they preferred to just gnaw it off the skewer. Passing as a vegetable were corn todmuns, golden fritters packed with corn kernels and minced peppers. These easy-to-grab treats were gobbled up fast, too, leaving only the coconut shrimp to challenge our boys, who needed help separating the tails from the shrimp.

In the end even Brendan, who isn’t big on seafood, finished every bite … and then asked for a sample of my noodles. The few bites I gave him made an immediate impact, though. “When we come back, I’m getting what you had, Dad,” he said.

And he did. When we went back, Brendan was insistent on getting the Bangkok Spicy Noodles. Only he chose the vegetarian option, rather than the pork. This turned out to be a good thing, because Duncan claimed that he wasn’t really that hungry and said, “I’ll just eat off of Mom’s plate.” Kathy, however, got the Pad Kee Mau, aka Drunken Noodles. (There’s no alcohol in the dish, but legend suggests that you risk being intoxicated by the combination of rich spices.) But the “medium” heat level was still hotter than Kathy wanted to handle, which meant it was too spicy for Duncan as well. (Our server very graciously insisted on replacing it with a less-fiery version.)

Big brother to the rescue! Brendan said he would gladly share some of his dinner. Both boys analyzed the different interesting veggies – baby corn, wood-ear mushrooms, carrots in long threads and daisy-like wheels – as Brendan dutifully portioned them out. Duncan really went for the broccoli, so Brendan gave it all to him, in return for getting to keep all the crispy tofu cubes for himself.

The second try for Kathy’s Drunken Noodles was spot-on, with lots of flavor and just enough heat. The noodles were richly studded with chunks of scallop, calamari and shrimp. To cool things down, she sipped a citron vodka-spiked version of Thai iced tea, a sweet and creamy drink with a startling orange color. I tried the unleaded version of the tea, and it made a smooth counterpoint to the tangy sauce served with my sesame barbecue pork. We were too stuffed to contemplate something from the small dessert menu, but the boys readily accepted lollipops from our server.

Both boys have mentioned Sen Thai Asian Bistro since our last visit; Brendan even said he had a dream about the elephants. While it may not have permeated our unconscious quite so profoundly, Kathy and I agree that Sen Thai Asian Bistro is one of those great dining experiences that (in elephant-like style) you’ll never forget. Two big golden forks, and two little golden forks, held high!