When it comes to Thai food, I’m pretty picky—or at least I have been for the last eight years or so. Back in 2005, I moved to Portland, Oregon to go to college. It was there that I discovered a chicken shack tucked away on a quiet stretch of SE Division Street. Perhaps chicken is a misnomer; this tiny building was selling Thai-style grill-roasted game hens stuffed full of ginger and lemongrass alongside sticky rice and optional papaya salad. My friends and I would make our way over there in the late afternoons, carrying stacks of take-out containers filled to the brim with the golden poultry across the street to devour with our hands while sitting on the hood of the car.
Over the next few years, this humble outpost grew, taking over the house next door in order to prepare and serve myriad authentic Thai dishes, painstakingly recreated from his trips abroad by Andy Ricker. These days, Ricker’s restaurant, Pok Pok, and its subsequent siblings in Portland and New York, has changed the way many of us perceive Thai food. His cuisine is often mercilessly funky, spicy, and sweet; it demands that eaters embrace the unfamiliar and learn to adapt our perception of taste.
Given my history with this style of Thai food, I was undoubtedly excited to visit Kin Khao, the 2-month old brainchild of local blogger and jam-maker Pim Techamuanvivit and former Manresa sous chef Michael Gaines. The restaurant, like Ricker’s, is an attempt to revamp our exposure to Thai dining; Techamuanvivit is, she explains on her website, “on a mission to liberate her beloved Thai cuisine from the tyranny of peanut sauce.” I think we should all get behind that plan.
Kin Khao is hidden in the Parc 55 Hotel in Union Square. It is an odd place for a restaurant that seems geared toward a young, foodcentric crowd, but no matter—it’s super close to BART. Plus, once you’re inside the small, friendly dining room, it’s easy to forget that the building is surrounded by tourists.
The first thing to do once you’re in is to order a cocktail. Yes, Thai food often goes best with a cold beer. Yes, you will probably want one with your meal. But it’d be a shame to jump right to a lager when they’re serving a bevy of boozy libations created by the Bon Vivants. My pick was the Tom Yum (not the soup with the shrimp, the menu implores), a potent mix of gin and vermouth, accented with galangal, lemongrass, and floral kaffir lime ($12). Techamuanvivit says it’s the most popular drink in at the bar, and I can see why—aromatically complex yet easy-to-drink, it’s a perfect mix of the innovative and familiar.
Like most Thai menus in the city, Kin Khao’s menu is divided into small categories: appetizers, meat and fish dishes, a few curries and vegetables, and a short list of noodle and rice platters. But while the typical Thai menu is expansive and pages in length, Kin Khao’s is succinct and completely pad thai-less. Instead there are totally scratch-made curries, tamarind and fish sauce wings, and vegetables topped with a funky sauce of cured pork and dried shrimp.
I’m happy to order from such a small and exciting menu, but given its brevity, the dishes should be solid. They aren’t quite there yet.
Those chicken wings? As their name implies, they are indeed “pretty hot,” battered, deep fried, and slicked with a spicy and sour glaze, flush with the unmistakable sheen of Sriracha. The wings are served whole, wing tips and all. It makes for an attractive presentation, but a challenge when it comes to the actual eating part. I simply could not find a way to get through a wing without popping a joint and splattering sauce across the table. Still, the wings themselves are generously meaty and finger-licking good. Don’t be afraid of them; just be sure to ask for extra napkins.
You will likely need to ask for extra napkins and anything else more than once, as the service is as hit-or-miss as the food. Techamuanvivit will likely pop by your table as a friendly gesture; it’s nice, but I wish the servers were as friendly and helpful as she.
Less successful than the wings was the kanah pad XO sauce—sautéed Chinese broccoli with that aforementioned shrimp and pork sauce. The sauce itself is appropriately potent, and the greens earthy, slightly bitter, and refreshing (especially after those wings), but the resulting dish lacks cohesion and brightness. A generous squeeze of lime or sprinkle of rice vinegar would work wonders.
The rabbit curry’s rich curry is a success in its subtlety. Quietly redolent of coconut, chiles, and lemongrass, it is a fine backdrop to gently braised rabbit and Thai eggplant. The leg meat served on the bone is tender, but the saddle verges on dry. Far more memorable are the rabbit meatballs, succulent and softly pink in the middle, with a mysterious sweetness that begs for another bite. I could only find a couple small pieces of eggplant buried beneath the rabbit; a few more bites of the vegetable would have been welcome.
Clearly Kin Khao still needs some time to come into its own. But Techamuanvivit has the right vision for the restaurant, and I’d be happy to keep on stopping by until it captures my excitement just like the fledgling chicken shack in Portland.