Flavor // From under the tamarind tree

An Nguyen arrived in Minneapolis in the ’70s and set about teaching us a thing or two — first, French in a suburban school; fashion in an upscale Uptown boutique; and, most memorably, that the food of her homeland, Vietnam, was in a class apart from the chow mein served under tasseled lanterns in what served, at the time, as “Oriental” dining.

First came Matin, in the Warehouse District, introducing flavors as crisp and sunny as the space. Next, Rice Paper debuted in Linden Hills, introducing the childhood delights she’d adored in her Vietnamese village, freshened and lightened to serve today’s health- and flavor-conscious palates. Only one problem: It proved as popular as it was tiny.

In September, Rice Paper unfurled in larger quarters at 50th & France — lots more space (all taken and a waiting list last Saturday) against the familiar backdrop photo of a bamboo forest — her cool, green retreat as a kid.

Our favorite entrée, among many bright, clean preparations, remains the tamarind rice trio, An’s childhood dream come true. Under a tamarind tree at school where vendors sold rice, she enjoyed a ball whenever she had a dime to spare, but always had to choose between the proferred toppings.

Sparing her guests that dilemma, three balls are offered on a single plate — one topped with scallion oil, another drizzled with peanut sauce and a sprinkle of fresh-roasted nuts, and a third coiffed with toasted coconut in an understated coconut sauce. They share the plate with tender chicken (or tofu) bathed in a light, suave tamarind gravy in which to dip slender ribbons of lettuce and cilantro.

We also savored the coconut shrimp plate, composed of small, sweet (and slightly overcooked) critters dressed in toasty coconut, and a plate of ruby and jade curry — named for the strands of cabbage that dominate the dish. It boasts enough exuberant hot peppers to send you out the door smiling, and which are willingly — ardently! — absorbed by tofu cubes (entrees $10–13 lunch, $14–18 dinner, all celebrations that shine with herbs, sans MSG and spared of heavy oil).

The poster dish for this mantra is the South China Sea mussels app, composed of sweet, supple shellfish swimming in an addictive broth of garlic lifted with the fresh, clean, citrusy zing of lemongrass. Sensational.

Another app, the Grapefruit Festivity, offers a similar burst of flavor, thanks to the balance of tart and juicy grapefruit and a mint-like herb that liven bits of shrimp, roasted peanuts and crisped shallots: no snoozing here.

Rice Paper
3948 West 50th St.