Rice Paper specializes in light and healthy Vietnamese fare with intriguing bright flavors, a few Thai grace notes, and delectable sauces. Spiced with mint, lemongrass, and coriander, the artful and palate-pleasing Rice Paper dishes are nostalgic riffs on street-vendor fare that owner An Nguyen recalls from her childhood in then war-torn Vietnam. All of Rice Paper’s imaginatively conceived recipes, Nguyen has said, are attempts to recapture moments of happiness, serenity, and beauty recalled from her childhood along the Perfume River in the central Vietnamese province of Thừa Thiên Huế—memories that were all but crushed by the hardship and losses of war. (See lovely Edina magazine article about Nguyen and the inspiration for Rice Paper’s singular flavors.)
A tranquil bamboo forest mural, hallmark of the matchbox-sized Rice Paper in Linden Hills, survived the move to 50th & France, although the new Rice Paper lacks the intimacy and Zen vibe of the old. It brings an upscale spaciousness and modernity—what co-owner Steve Anderson, Nguyen’s husband, has been heard to describe as a “less colloquial feel.”
But only on the rare nights when it doesn’t fill up is it anything like the “calm haven in the heart of the city” it once was and continues to advertise itself to be.
Nguyen, the essence of graciousness, often is on hand to greet diners warmly (and has been known to press a steaming cup of lemongrass soup gratis into the hands of a takeout customer wearied by a winter cold). And Kris, Thu, and other Rice Paper servers are welcoming and attentive (several are of long standing, a rarity in the high-turnover restaurant biz; the grapevine has it that Nguyen has returned their loyalty, keeping several on the payroll when the restaurant was temporarily closed in mid-2010 during construction of its new home).
As to menu selections: Hard to choose and hard to go wrong. A few favorites, in addition to the Roadside Smoky Plate: the aforementioned and deeply satisfying lemongrass-infused Delta Soup (which truly is a sure cure for whatever ails you); the translucent and complex spring rolls with what is hands down the best peanut sauce in the region … the delicate spring rolls … sublime Rice Paper coconut shrimp … the always delicious Tamarind Rice Trio with its three savory dipping sauces … the Vietnamese noodle salad with crispy tofu puffs (a staple of our frequent Rice paper takeout runs) … and for a dessert to make your eyes look heavenward in thanks, the chocolate-drizzled coconut ice cream.
Rice Paper’s lyrical dishes and lovely dining experience are surprisingly well-priced, with most appetizers $6.95–$7.95, entrees $14.95-16.95, and wines by the glass for $6-8 (along with a nice Sake list and a few choice beers). I’ve seen blog reviews rapping Rice Paper on price, usually suggesting that Rice Paper’s entree costs are out of line other area restaurants serving Vietnamese and Thai food. Unfair. Springing for the imaginative Roadside Smoky Plate or Jasmine Garden at Rice Paper is kicking it up a few notches from going for even a reliably good bowl of pho or pad thai at popular Asian standbys like Minneapolis’s’ Quang Restaurant or St. Paul’s Trung Nam Bakery.
It makes more sense to put Rice Paper in a class with other moderately-fine-dining Asian places–none of which is as original or as good on the whole as Rice Paper–such as Jasmine 26 on Minneapolis’s Eat Street. Or weigh the value of a marvel like the Roadside Smoky Plate against a comparably priced pasta dish at the best Italian trattorias (the pack-‘em-in Broder’s, yes, but even better is the superb Prima, by far our fave Italian bistro).
And what $15 buys you at Rice Paper—in freshness, originality, complexity, freshness, and flavor—is really pretty amazing, which is why the palate-pleasing, soul-nourishing Rice Paper richly deserves a ranking among the best restaurants in the Twin Cities.
Rice Paper Contemporary Asian Restaurant
3948 West 50th Street, Edina (at Halifax & 49-1/2 Street, back of Edina 5-O Building across from Edina Theatre) | 952-288-2888
Hours: Mon-Sat 11-2 lunch, 5-9 dinner; Sun. 4-8 dinner
Notable: Gluten-Free & Dairy-Free Menu | Many Vegetarian Entrees | No MSG
Factoid: Owner and exec chef An Nguyen pioneered Vietnamese cuisine in the Twin Cities some three decades ago with the much-lauded Matin Restaurant in the Minneapolis Warehouse District