KIN KHAO, Union Square (55 Cyril Magnin St. at the corner of Ellis and Mason in Parc 55 Hotel, 415-362-7456)
Back in 1998-1999 I spent two months in Thailand – and another in Vietnam – working in orphanages and traveling around both countries. Needless to say, it was a life-altering three months, particularly during a far less touristy time in Southeast Asia. For a mere dollar or two, I ate amazing meals – and was stretched by experiencing a lot of rough conditions and indefinable “food”, bugs and animal parts included.
Rarely am I faced with some of the more fascinating elements of taste experienced in remote parts of Thailand… long before I started taking notes and photos of all my meals. While there is plenty of authentic Thai food in the US (minus the dumbed-down heat), the majority of restaurants stick to a similar menu. In LA, I can experience proper Thai heat from the second menu at Jitlada. At famed Pok Pok in Portland (now also NY), I find flavors I hadn’t experienced since 1999, creatively wrought, and also a proper use of stinky durian in dessert.
Enter Kin Khao, a new restaurant that belongs in the genre of exceptional Thai. First, there’s cooked-from-scratch curries (most restaurants do not go through this painstaking process) and exploring oft-ignored aspects of Thai cuisine. Proprietor Pim Techamuanvivit, author of The Foodie Handbook, and the popular blog, Chez Pim, hails from Bangkok. She is seriously dedicated to sourcing the best ingredients, even including a run down to LA every week to get a very specific brand of palm sugar for dishes and cocktails, one she can’t find anywhere else.
Chef Michael Gaines (who formerly worked at Pim’s partner, David Kinch’s two Michelin-starred restaurant, Manresa) oversees Pim’s kitchen and family recipes, sending out one memorable dish after another. Oh, those curries. Massaman Nong Lai ($26) showcases a bone-in beef shank braised in Massaman curry paste and coconut milk with burnt shallots and potatoes, decadently accented by orange oil.
If this savory curry hadn’t made impact enough, the 15 or more ingredients in Khun Yai’s green curry ($22) result in a show-stopper. Lush with coconut milk, Thai Apple eggplants, Thai basil and tender, pristine rabbit three ways – loin, saddle, and tender, herb-laden meatballs – it’s enough to make you want to give up on mediocre curries everywhere. Though expensive, the portion is plenty for two to share. I’ve brought home leftovers after every visit. Both curries taste amazing the next morning, stir-fried with eggs and rice.
There’s plenty to love beyond curries. Mushroom Hor Mok ($10) is a fluffy, cool curry mousse served in a jar, made of both wild and cultivated mushrooms, scooped up with crisp rice cakes. Pretty Hot Wings ($7) don’t approach the divine fish sauce wings at the aforementioned Pok Pok in Portland and NY, but they are juicy, marinated in Nam Pla fish sauce and garlic marinade, glazed tamarind and Sriracha. Yum Kai Dao ($7) is an unusual “salad” of deep fried duck egg, delightfully contrasted by runny yolk, the crunch of peanuts, shallots, mint, cilantro and cucumber, dotted with dollops of chilli jam.
Sai Ua+Namprik Noom ($15), a grilled house-made Northern Thai pork sausage, is the best version I’ve ever had, including in Thailand. The sausage nearly pops with flavor, contrasted by pork cracklings and spicy pepper relish. Saeng-wah salad ($16) is an unusual play on texture. Though called a wild gulf prawn “ceviche”, it’s plump prawns over crispy catfish crumbled up, dotted with lemongrass, ginger and bird’s eye chilli. While it starts to feel like too much raw shrimp half way through, it’s a memorable play in contrasts.
Thus far, there’s one dessert. Black rice pudding ($8) is blessedly not sweet on its own, but is served with a variety of condiments: toasted rice, coconut cream, and that divine palm sugar melted like caramel, all stirred to taste preference in the warm black rice. It recalls my Thailand days where dessert, if it happened at all, was rarely ever sweet, but often comforting. This also makes a lovely leftover breakfast.
With warm service and what already promises to be the most exciting Thai food in SF, only the clean white walls and slightly generic-looking setting in the Wyndham Parc 55 Hotel (enter through hotel doors at the corner of Mason and Ellis) feels as if it’s not keeping up.
Though Kin Khao is still working out opening kinks, this is the Thai restaurant I’ve been waiting for.
BON VIVANTS’ COCKTAILS
With a cocktail menu ($12 each) crafted by San Francisco cocktail/design dream team, The Bon Vivants – most specifically by the talented Scott Baird – there was no way it wasn’t going to be good. Just as important, they’ve hired bartenders who can properly execute, like the talented Keli Rivers and Rhachel Shaw. In my initial three visits, I tried every cocktail on the menu – and a couple off menu – most of them refreshing, lovely accompaniments with the food.