Let’s get this out of the way at the start: I’ve never visited Thailand. And with the exception of Chef Andy Ricker’s former trendy Ping restaurant in Portland, Ore., the Thai food I’ve experienced has been relegated to mom-and-pop places doing their best but not looking to pioneer in any way.
As such, I’m no Thai food expert by any means.
But all I know is that the Thai food at San Francisco’s new Kin Khao is unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before.
Kin Khao, which is a colloquialism for “let’s eat,” was opened a few months ago by first-time restaurateur Pim Techamuanvivit.
If you’ve followed her long-time blog, Chez Pim, you know she’s a stickler when it comes to perfecting flavors and techniques.
She’s not behind the burners, herself. But the dishes are crafted from recipes she learned from her grandmother and aunts. Chef de Cuisine Michael Gaines, former sous chef of Michelin two-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, heads the kitchen and translates her vision onto the plates. And unless you’ve been asleep for a decade, you probably already know, too, that Techamuanvivit’s long-time companion is Manresa’s Chef-Owner David Kinch.
The 78-seat restaurant is housed in the Parc 55 hotel downtown. It can be a little hard to find, as it’s located on the second floor with minimal signage. The easiest route is to enter directly from the corner of Mason and Ellis. In any event, once you hit the lobby level, just follow the whiff of steamed jasmine rice to find it.
What makes the food at Kin Khao so different?
First, the concise menu is made up of dishes that you don’t often find at other Thai establishments in the Bay Area.
Second, a tight fist is exercised when it comes to sweetness. In fact, even the “Number One Brand” Thai iced tea ($5) was the least sweetened version I’ve ever tasted, allowing the slightly tannic and floral qualities of the tea to shine through more prominently.
The creative cocktail list was curated by the Bon Vivants. But if you have to drive an hour home afterward like I do, you’ll be glad to know that they’ve also created a couple of “bitters & sodas” ($7 each) that are more like spritzers, in which the alcohol is negligible. I tried one made with grapefruit, lime, ginger beer and Bonal, a French aperitif made from wildflowers. It was a refreshing quaff with citrus and botanical notes that complimented the food.
Although my two friends and I paid our tab, Techamuanvivit, whom I’ve met quite a few times over the years, threw in two extra dishes on the house that she wanted us to especially try.
Kin Khao has been a hot ticket since its doors opened. Last Tuesday night, the dining room was packed, with a good number of folks at the hostess desk, hoping to still get in.
It’s a casual place with bare wood tables set with containers of chopsticks and forks, and rolled-up napkins that you help yourself to.
There’s no better way to begin than with an order of Khao Tung Na Tung ($8), crisp puffed rice cakes that come with a jar of pork-shrimp peanut dip to slather on. It’s like Thai potato chips and dip. I could happily snack on this all day long. The creamy, slightly chunky dip is savory, briny and with just enough sweetness to balance it all out. It’s kind of like a thicker, more interesting satay sauce. The servers are great about bringing you extra rice cakes, too, so you can use up every bit of the dip.
Another must-order is the much-heralded Yum Yai Salad ($12), a melange of raw and cooked vegetables, including some done tempura-style — all tossed in a chili jam dressing that has a nice fruitiness and just a tickle of heat. It’s a refreshing salad, where you discover something new in every bite, be it carrot, radish, cucumber or something else bright and crisp.
Pretty Hot Wings (8) are spot-on in description. They’re about medium on the heat scale and coated in a thick gravy-like glaze of Sriracha, tamarind, garlic and fish sauce. Prepare to dig in and get messy, though, as the wings are served whole with drummette and wingette attached. They’re a little unwieldy to tackle, but worth the effort. Plus, you’re brought wet towels afterward, which makes for an easy clean-up of the fingers.
Pim brought out the Kua Kling Ribs ($15), warning that “these will hurt a little.” She joked that Kinch admits they are plenty hot, but he still can’t stop eating them. The ribs were definitely the hottest dish we tried that night. I could feel my scalp warming as I took bite after bite. They’re dry-fried, coated with a turmeric curry paste made with kaffir lime leaves. You grab one from the serving dish with a fork, only to have the meat already start to come away. That’s how tender they are. They’d be great with beer to help cut the heat. Or some rice, which is served in cute little woven bamboo boxes.
Sai Ua+Namprik Noom ($15) are house-made Northern Thai pork sausages that are grilled, then sliced. You place a juicy slice inside a lettuce leaf, then spoon on some spicy, tangy pepper relish before folding it up taco-style. Sticky rice and curls of pork cracklings come on the side to enjoy.
Chili Jam Clams ($14) brought forth the biggest clams I’ve seen in a long time. Tossed with chili jam and basil sauce, they were plump, slightly spicy and with an herbaceous finish.
Pad Kee Mao ($14) is a little like Chinese chow fun rice noodles that have been kicked up a notch with stir-fried with plenty of ground rabbit meat, garlic, bird’s eye chili, onions, bell peppers, and holy basil.
Kanah Pad XO Sauce ($10) is perfectly al dente stems of Chinese broccoli, bright green and full of crunch, that have been drizzled with Pim’s briny, savory, garlicky take on that Chinese staple sauce.
Khun Yai’s Rabbit Green Curry ($24) is one of the most expensive dishes on the menu. But it’s a big bowl, filled with rabbit meatballs, rabbit leg and small Thai apple eggplants buried in a pool of thick, rich, very creamy coconut sauce that gets its pale green color from plenty of Thai basil and green chillies. You’ll want plenty of rice with this because just the sauce alone on it is enough to please.
Only one dessert is offered — black rice porridge ($8). But it’s plenty big enough to share. It arrives warm, alongside ramekins of salted palm sugar caramel sauce, coconut cream and toasted rice. Add as much or as little as you like for a comforting way to end the evening.
Kin Khao definitely opened my eyes — and my palate — to what Thai food can really be. I can’t wait to try more.