Looking for a perfect dessert to chase your take-out?
Pop in to 106 Wildwood Road in Willernie and you’ll see some familiar elements. Nestled across the street from the post office and just off Stillwater Road, the décor is reminiscent of the days when Olive Joe’s served up their Italian and American food, but the cozy spot is now home to Valerie’s Asian Cuisine, a one-woman show run by Valerie Thao.
Thao’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Thailand in the midst of civil unrest in the 1990s, bringing fresh home-cooked flavors and her mother’s traditional family recipes with them. Thao eventually settled in Fresno, California, working at a grocery store and picking up cooking techniques from the hot bar deli staff there.
When Thao moved her family to Minnesota in 2014 to be closer to her two sisters in the wake of a divorce, it seemed an obvious choice to go into the restaurant business. She ran a smoothie shop—Breeze Island Yogurt—in the St. Paul skyway for a time. But living in Mahtomedi and feeling a pull toward the tight-knit, walkable community, she was on the lookout for a restaurant closer to home when she saw an online ad saying Olive Joe’s was up for sale.
Thao bought the restaurant in October 2017. Not wanting to break with tradition, and wanting to keep momentum going as she got used to owning a business in town, Thao kept the name and menu. She renovated the kitchen, swapping in a high-temperature wok for the American-style grill and gradually adding her own recipes to the line-up.
“People slowly stopped ordering Olive Joe’s entrees and transferred to mine,” Thao says. “But I polled the clientele!” As of November, fried ravioli, chicken wings, onion rings and French fries were still on the menu, just in case die-hard visitors still had a hankering for them, but Valerie eventually pulled them off for good. Just as Thao had a fresh start in a new state, the restaurant got a fresh start as Valerie’s, with the locals warming up to her from-scratch Asian cooking.
Thao makes her own small-batch entrees from ingredients she buys herself, and as a single mom without a staff, she gets by on just a few hours of sleep a night. “But it feels more like me,” she says about her labor of love. “It’s what I want to eat.”
The pho (pronounced “fuh”) is based on flavorful bone broth that’s made fresh, simmering six to eight hours. “I could eat that every day,” says Thao. “It’s filling without being heavy.” And her love of Thai cuisine shines through in the pad Thai, which is made more traditionally than many Americans may expect—with the focus on protein, not veggies. She uses high-quality cuts of meat only, with lean chicken breast starring in many of her entrées, and each meal is made fresh when an order is placed.
“I cook for my customers, but really, I’m cooking for myself, too,” Thao says. Her adult son helps her out at home while she works, and she and her kids usually eat off the menu between peak times. Valerie’s does more take-out business than eat-in, and orders begin to come in steadily before the dinner rush. Some regulars call just for the fried rice, but others have extensive orders that Thao can rattle off by heart. As Thao has gotten used to the restaurant business and filling a niche for the local community, Willernie has become home.
“Cooking is what I love to do, and I’ve just felt so welcomed here,” says Thao. “I’m just happy the moment I walk in the door each morning…ready to take on anything.”
Thao makes stir-fries easy to order. Just pick vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, pork or shrimp—and one of several preparations:
Corn, peas, carrots and diced meat, tofu or veggies fried quickly over high heat.
A favorite at Valerie’s, this one’s done up with crispy egg noodles.
A soft egg noodle stars in this version, tossed in fresh, house-made sauce.
A bigger, chewier rice noodle than you’d see in the pad Thai—but also fast-fried in a hot wok.
Valerie’s Asian Cuisine
106 Wildwood Rd, Willernie
Facebook: Valerie’s Asian Cuisine