When I moved back home to Iowa after living in Minneapolis for a few years, one of the few things I missed was the cuisine. I’m no food snob — I like cheeseburgers and pizza as much as the next person — but I also appreciate things like a great falafel and other foods that are a little less Midwestern-y once in a while. And I learned while living in the Twin Cities that I really, really love Thai food. It’s got everything you could possibly want from Asian cuisine on one menu: curries, noodle dishes, spring rolls, fried rice (even basil fried rice, who knew?) and more.
Enter NaRa Thai Cuisine, which opened in Marion in 2018. Yes, Marion, not some big, fancy city. In a strip mall, no less (shoutout to nearby Thai restaurant Siamville — also tasty, also in a strip mall). When NaRa first opened, I approached with caution, fearful that my oh-so refined palate would be disappointed. It was not. Since that fateful first order, I’ve ordered from the restaurant no less than 25 times. Last summer, during that awkward phase when restaurants were figuring out if they were going to open back up for indoor dining, it was the only place I ordered from for a few weeks because I appreciated their commitment to continue offering curbside pickup.
I am guilty, though, of finding one dish I love and ordering it over and over again. That dish is Lion City. It’s not their star dish—it’s a deep cut, appearing practically last on their extensive menu. But for noodle-dish lovers, I cannot recommend it enough. It has those impossibly tiny rice noodles, tons of veggies, whatever protein you want and whatever spice level you want.
This is where I need to pause to warn you about NaRa’s spice level, particularly if you are a native Iowan raised on meat and potatoes like myself. According to the menu, it goes all the way from zero to 10. Do not even look past number eight; these numbers do not exist for the vast majority of us. Madeline, my adventurous friend, likes to order a seven and proudly send me photos of her flushed face after eating. Hayley and Sam, who are enthusiastic spicy food fans, hang out in the four-to-five range. I’m firmly at level two, which is just enough spice to make me pause and say “Uff-da” every once in a while.
I’ve also ventured into the curries, and I’ve ordered green curry over my go-to noodle dish on a couple of occasions because it’s so delicious. It comes with peppers, basil and generous pieces of eggplant. I’m a firm believer that the best thing to pair Thai food with is tofu or mock duck rather than meat, and both vegetarian options are offered at NaRa. Mock duck, a sort of meatier tofu made with gluten, soaks up all of the curry flavors perfectly.
My husband and I are in a permanent stand-off over which appetizer is better: the crab rangoons or the spring rolls. I’m obsessed with the spring rolls because they’re crunchy and fresh and yet another strong vegetarian offering. (And do we really need meat at every meal?) He likes the rangoons because, well, they’re enormous. Decadent, really. The only reason I protest ordering them is because they’re so filling I don’t have enough room to finish my curry.
Their curbside game is still strong, and truly nothing is lost by ordering the food for takeout. In fact, the menu includes several “street food” dishes just asking to be ordered for carryout, like “Racy Pad Thai,” which appears to be regular pad thai but with more chili sauce. When you need a break from your stews and your pot roasts this winter, I highly recommend pulling up and popping your trunk for something that will truly spice things up.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 290.