by Steve Bivans
I love to eat.
If you’ve read more than one sentence of my stuff, you already know that.
The other thing I love to do, is drink. And if you put the two of those things together, it’s like “You got peanut-butter on my chocolate! You got chocolate in my peanut-butter!” They are very yummy, mixy things. And they’re mutually supportive. The more I eat, the more I want something to drink, and visa versa.
I don’t always drink alcohol, however, but I do love my beer, and bourbon. in fact, at my birthday party this Saturday, the first three people through the door each brought me a fifth of Knob Creek, and there were several other bottles that staggered in as the evening advanced. If you read much of my crap you’ll come to the conclusion that all I ever do is eat, and drink booze. That’s not entirely accurate; I do actually sleep on occasion—though not enough—and manage to do some work in between my boozy, gluttony escapades. The funny reality is that I don’t actually drink that much anymore. I write and talk about booze way more than I actually drink it. When I was younger––in my twenties––I drank, a lot, like float-a-battleship a lot. But now that I’m older, and much mellower—this IS the mellow me—, and wiser, I’ve cut back on the boozing. That’s a good thing, because if I hadn’t I’d probably be pushing up fucking daisies by now. They’d be smiling, happy, drunk daisies, but daisies nonetheless.
But I do still love to eat, and drink. Just yesterday I was talking with a good friend of mine, James––who is very much the same way, i.e. an eater and boozer––and we fell upon one of our favorite places to eat, anywhere. And that’s what I’m really writing about today, in case you were wondering where the hell I was going with this. What I really want to talk about isn’t my love for beer and food, though it’s related, no, what I want to talk about is a little Thai restaurant here on West 7th Street in Saint Paul, called Supatra Thai.
It’s owned and run by Supatra Johnson. I know, it’s not the most Thai-y of last names; it’s a fusion name. She immigrated to America, to Minnesota, then married a man from way up ‘nort’–– that’s north for the rest of us who aren’t from ’round here—who just happened to not be from Thailand, obviously. But I don’t really want to go into her life story, for a couple of reasons. One, I know jack crap about it, and two, I’d rather talk about her food. It’s amazing. Period. Everything I’ve tried in her restaurant is yummy, but she has one dish that surpasses them all, in fact, surpasses probably every dish I’ve ever eaten, anywhere. She calls it Crying Tiger.
I’m not even sure where to start on this one. When I think about this dish, my mind goes kind of numb, like I’m on some kind of drug, you know, like you feel when you’re drinking or smoking wacky weed, and you suddenly realize you’ve by-passed the proverbial ‘Go’ and are now lying on the floor of the ‘Jail’, that moment when––in a panicky voice you say, “Oh shit, I’m gonna be stoned as hell in a minute.”
My friend, James, and I were discussing the dish yesterday because Patience—my girlfriend—and I went to Supatra’s for Valentine’s Day. We got there early, in the late afternoon so we beat the crowd of Hallmark, chocolate, roses-once-a-year mob. Yeah, I know, that puts us squarely in the ‘blue hair’ category, but to hell with it. I’m not that fond of crowds in my old age anyway.
For an appetizer we both ordered her Thai Wings, which are also kick-ass, but really we go there for the weeping kitty, the moistened, maladjusted cat, the Crying Tiger. Sometime last year, I dragged James to Supatra’s to hunt the Tiger. James studies Chinese history, and as a result, is somewhat picky about his Asian food, so I’m always hesitant to take him to a new place. I felt pretty confident about his future love-lust relationship with Crying Tiger, however, so I told him that he “had to order it.” He did; now we’re both addicted to it. So on Valentine’s Day, as I was eating, I texted him—I know, I’m Captain Romance! I’m sitting with my beautiful lady while texting my foodie snob friend to taunt him a bit. That’s what good friends do, right? His answer? “Arrrgh, I’ve been craving that for weeks!” He doesn’t live in Saint Paul, near to Supatra’s, like I do. Take that man! Ha ha! Sorry, I digress. I might be old, but I’m also male, so we never really progress much past the age of 12.
Supatra’s restaurant is a small, clean, pleasant, and well decorated place. The staff are all very friendly, especially the very young man who showed us to our table, set up the silverware, and greeted us. He might have been ten years old, so I reckon he was Supatra’s son, nephew or some relation. I didn’t get his name, but he was dressed in black, with a red bow tie, and was a friendly, industrious lad. But quite frankly, if, and I stress if, everyone in the place was an ogre and the place smelled like a pissed stained opium den from the East End of London in 1888, I would take my chances with Jack the F’n Ripper, the prostitutes, the muggers, the pushers, and the Salvation Army bands to get to Supatra’s Crying Tiger dish. It’s that amazing. Luckily, the place doesn’t smell like a moistened alleyway, so all I have to do is find a parking spot––which can be an adventure in and of itself.
I guess it’s time to actually tell you what it is. This is difficult, because it defies description in many ways. Yeah, I can tell you what’s on the plate—grilled lettuce (which Patience loves and I consider ‘decoration’ since I’m not really a veggie guy), topped with a small mound of thin, grilled beef, next to fresh cilantro, some cucumbers and ‘mater wedges (which I also mostly avoid), and a heart-shaped basket filled with steamed, sticky rice. All of this is amazing stuff, especially the beef, but what makes it an intoxicating, evil, wonderful, addictive experience, is the sauce. Ohmygod, The Crying Tiger Sauce. It looks like your regular, run of the mill soy sauce, but looks are very deceiving. I’m pretty sure it’s soy based, but that’s where the comparison ends.
Crying Tiger Sauce is salty, very salty, and smoky, and just a hint of sweet-y. The smokiness comes from the roasted rice powder, I think. Holy Crap this is an amazing sauce, and I’m an expert on making sauces. I wish I had invented this one. It slays me. Part of the slaying comes from the fact that I also love very spicy food. And when I order the Crying Tiger, it’s not just weeping; hell no, it’s wailing like a fuckin’ banshee, or a teenage girl who’s lost her first boyfriend to her best friend’s mother kind of weeping. I tell them to “make it as hot as you can!” which means on their scale of 1 to 5, I order a 10, or better yet, let’s make that an 11. This one goes to 11. And they do it. They positively light me up! On fire! I’m talkin’ large entrance AND exit wound, if you know what I mean. Great food must be paid for twice: once on the front side, and once, well, on the other end.
How do you eat it? This is one of the best things about the dish because it’s designed to be eaten with the fingers, and I’m a guy, so that’s right up my alley anyway. “We don’ need no stinking uuutencils!” I think you’re supposed to wrap the beef, cilantro, ‘maters, cukes, and rice into the grilled lettuce leaves—that’s what Patience does—but I’m a lettuce hatin’, manly man, so I skip the veggies, reach for the little strips of beef, put some rice on them, a bit of cilantro—because herbs don’t count as veggies in my world—and then dip this little package of wonderfulness into that sauce.
Something magical happens when I do this. It’s kind of like when I pick up one of Patience’s chocolate chip cookies. I go all five year old on it. Crying Tiger does that to me as well. I’m in a state of bliss as I reach to dip it in that sauce. Then I put it in my mouth, and my entire body goes tingly. You know the feeling—if you’re an adult—and if you’re not, or if you are and aren’t acquainted with such sensations, grow up quick, get a new husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, or a new love-enhancing toy and open your mind to a whole new world.
That’s what Crying Tiger does. I first taste the salt, and smokiness, and that hint of sweetness. Then the spice rips me open like only a big cat in the jungle can; my nose begins to run, my forehead perspires, and I begin to cry. Not the unmanly kind of crying, mind ya. No, this is the kind of crying you see warriors do on the battlefield or in the National Cemetery. Of course, you don’t have to order it at 11; you can wimp out and go for a 1, or somewhere in between. Personally, I love the pain. It enhances the flavor. Trust me, it does.
James, Patience, and I, all love this dish. James and I both agreed yesterday, that if money were no concern, he and I would sit down at Supatra’s, order a lifetime’s supply of beer and a continuous stream of Crying Tiger—just mound it all up on the table with a bucket of that damned sauce—and we would eat, drink, and weep, until we literally died in our seat. Fuck it, who cares. Would there be a better way to go? Maybe—it depends on how good your husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend are—but Death by Crying Tiger at Supatra Thai? An excellent way to go, even on Valentine’s Day. Come to think of it, I think the real Saint Valentine was stabbed or hacked to death anyway, so maybe it’s fitting.