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Review: Leela Thai Cuisine offers refined ethnic dining at great price

The appetizers at Leela Thai Cuisine, like the chicken satay and spring rolls shown here, are a good introduction to the rest of the menu. Eric Daueber / The Forum1 / 3
The pad cashew tempers saltiness with a sweet chili sauce and roasted chilies, and each ingredient is perfectly cooked. Eric Daeueber / The Forum2 / 3
The chicken in the see ew at Leela Thai Cuisine tends to be overpowered by the green onions in the dish. Eric Daeueber / The Forum3 / 3

As hard as it is to believe, not very long ago Fargo was not a very diverse community and ethnic dining opportunities were not all that common.

One of the earliest global cuisines to make an appearance in Fargo was Thai food, a quality alternative to what passes for Chinese food on one hand, and a healthy alternative to what was then pretty basic franchise grub on the other. Both were hard on your heart and heavy on the waistline.

Leela Thai Cuisine, and its cousin Thai Orchid, are old timers by Fargo ethnic restaurant standards. And both have aged fairly well. Leela makes the best of the shopping/strip mall it shares with a coffee shop, art gallery, gift shop and a few other unique spaces. It's quiet, relaxed, intimate, and gives the feel of fine dining lite.

Service is pleasant, if a little uneven — sometimes too fast and sometimes a little too relaxed. For example, we waited just a little longer than we might have expected for our appetizer order, an order that went in well before our orders for entrees, but entrees arrived seconds after the appetizers touched down on the table. That made it difficult to navigate the limited tabletop real estate and made it necessary to let one thing or another grow cool - a pity given that so much of the cuisine is temperature sensitive.

That aside, the food, at the right temperature, is generally very good. The flawless mango duck curry ($13.99) is without peer. Duck has become a staple at finer restaurants in the area of late in the same way pork belly has in local bars, and it impresses in much the same way, that is to say, not very much.

But this duck was tender, held up well in a curry soup and took on the sweetness of mango as well or better than rendered duck might a good glaze. The curry was careful to not overpower the mildness of the breast and the side of white rice did the subtly of the dish justice. The basil was sweet with not a hint of bitterness.

On the still milder side, the see ew ($9.99), which seems to take almost all its spice from green onions, is better taken with beef or pork than the chicken, which disappears in this already overly mild dish.

On the other side of the spectrum is the pad cashew ($9.99). This dish manages to mitigate its tendency to saltiness with sweet chili sauce and roasted chilies. Some palates may like these favors, but unlike the mango duck, they seem to dally around the lines that mark the extremes of mild and salt. That said, each individual ingredient held its own in the pad cashew in both texture and flavor, and one would be hard pressed to find any of them over or under cooked or badly prepped.

Dessert seems unnecessary given how generous the portions and impressive many of the flavors turn out to be. The chocolate cake is a bit crumbly and seems out of place.

But the appetizers are fun and a good introduction to the rest of the menu with the savory chicken satay and the summer rolls, fresh and clean, taking front row when accompanied with peanut sauce and sweet and sour sauce respectively.

And it's hard to ignore the price, which makes it possible to try three dishes for the price of one less-than-stellar gastro pub impersonation of fine cuisine. For that reason alone, LeeLa puts a whole weekend of dining at the price point of an evening out in quite a few places downtown.

In the past Leela was among the few ethnic dining options in town. Today it provides an opportunity to try unique dishes in a category equally thin — refined dining at a reasonable price.

Leela Thai Cuisine

Address: 1450 25th St. S., Fargo

Cuisine: Thai

Food: 3 stars Service: 2.5 stars Ambiance: 3 stars

Dining details

Hours: Monday to Saturday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Phone: (701) 235-5795

Reservations accepted: Yes

Alcohol: Beer and wine

Credit cards accepted: Yes

Eric Daeuber is an instructor at Minnesota State Community and Technical College. Readers can reach him at food@daeuber.com.

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