Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine. All photos: © tablehopper.com.
Check out those Kua Kling Ribs. Flavor country.
Yum Kai Dao fried duck egg “salad.”
Saeng-wah Salad with wild Gulf prawns and fried catfish.
Yum Yai Salad with seasonal vegetables.
Khao Soi Gai.
Black rice pudding.
A look into one of the two dining rooms. Photo courtesy of Kin Khao.
In the latest chapter of “build it and they will come” is ~KIN KHAO~, the very personal Thai restaurant from Pim Techamuanvivit, known in international culinary circles for her blog, Chez Pim, her award-winning jams, and as the globe-trotting girlfriend of Manresa’s David Kinch. It was a trip to Pim’s native Thailand with Kinch, along with Michael Gaines—then Kinch’s sous chef—which planted to seed for Pim and Gaines’s unique partnership.
When Pim was putting together her plan for her first restaurant, she knew she didn’t have the requisite experience of running a professional restaurant kitchen; Gaines was fortuitously available (he had left Manresa as chef de cuisine for Central Kitchen here in SF). He was game to immerse himself in this non-native cuisine, working closely with Pim’s exacting demands on how she needed the food to taste, while bringing his tremendous skill set with ingredient sourcing and preparation. What the two of them are co-creating makes for a menu that’s uniquely Thai by way of San Francisco.
It’s not an easy location, nestled in the back of the Parc 55 Hotel, just a block from one of the grittier blocks of the Tenderloin (take advantage of the deal they have for hotel parking: $12 for two hours). But the location was an offer she couldn’t refuse: a downtown restaurant address with a full liquor license. Kin Khao occasionally has hotel guests and tourists who don’t understand why there isn’t any pad thai on the menu or are looking for a dinner for two that’s under $30 (the Thai place across the street is really benefitting, because that’s where Pim’s team sends them). The rest of us are venturing from across town to eat our way through this fascinating menu (I sure am), one that at first glance reminded me of what Charles Phan did for Vietnamese food by making it with quality, local, seasonal, and sustainable ingredients—remember the first time you tasted his shaking beef?
I had the same experience tasting Pim’s green curry ($24), which is the most time-consuming dish on the menu (everything is made by hand, and the curries are the most demanding). It comes with juicy Devil’s Gulch rabbit (a savory switch from the usual chicken you’ll find), and while you may have to negotiate who gets the leg or the saddle at your table, you each get some meatballs (win!). Just sit and savor the complexity of this curry, with its perfectly modulated heat coming from the fresh chile.
The dishes I can’t stop thinking about are the full flavor-forward ones in the bites and meats sections: if you’re someone who like to suck the heads of crayfish or other shellfish, you’ll love the funky undertones of the Khao Tung Na Tung pork and shrimp dip ($8) that you spread on crisp rice cakes, a homey recipe from Pim’s grandma. Vegetarians can go for the Hor Mok Terrine ($10), a creamy curry mousse topped with coconut milk and studded with Connie Green mushrooms. The Yum Kai Dao ($7) fried duck egg “salad” is for my fellow egg sluts—a dish I’d love for brunch—zipped up with chile jam, peanuts, fried shallots, mint, and cilantro.
Some of the dishes are traditional, and some are entirely their own creation, like the meaty Pretty Hot Wings ($8), which have a bright-red sriracha-infused color (I call them Buffalo Thai wings). They hit the full taste spectrum: they’re a touch sweet, and tangy, and salty, and definitely spicy (their marinade also gives them a garlicky note). Bonus: the wings are fried in tapioca and rice powder, so they’re gluten-free.
The Kua Kling pork ribs ($15) are bonkers. This classic dish from the south throbs with intensity: they’re initially steamed in fish sauce, flash-fried, and tossed around (which is what their name means) in a wok with a fresh curry paste with notes of turmeric, chile, white pepper, and galangal, and the final pop comes from kaffir lime. Mega flava in yo face! The texture on these ribs is so satisfying (time to turn on the monkey brain), and it’s another dish that’s so good to eat with your hands.
A few dishes struck me as too expensive for what they deliver: I found the Khao Mun Gai ($16) too complicated to share (it comes a scoop of chicken fat rice, slices of subtle ginger-poached chicken, and a cup of chicken consommé that you sip), and I didn’t care for the texture of the Northern Thai pork sausage ($15)—ditto the tough charred young octopus ($13). I found a similar texture issue with the Massaman Nong Lai ($26), a gorgeous curry, obviously such a labor of love, but the meat left me longing for a soft and tender braise. These are all things I can see getting fine-tuned each week the restaurant is open and dials things in even further.
The texture of the chile jam clams ($15) was perfect, plump Littlenecks in a savory saucy broth that only needs a wider bowl so you can scoop it up with the shells more easily (and they needed to be a touch warmer). The winner of the texture contest is the Saeng-wah Salad ($15), a pretty bowl of wild Gulf prawns that are almost raw (they just get a quick dunk in boiling water), served with crisp bits of fried catfish, brightened with raw shallot, lemongrass, ginger, and kaffir. As my server instructed, you want to eat this with a spoon so you get the full experience. Um, yes you do.
You can also see Gaines’s Manresa pedigree in the beautifully plated Yum Yai Salad ($12), which features more of Pim’s prized chile jam, a condiment she grew up with that is rarely made at home (it’s her grandma’s recipe, and her aunt taught her how to make it); the day she mastered nam prik pao, she said it was a milestone for her in Thai cooking. It’s the star on the catwalk in the Yum Yai salad, a texture extravaganza that’s a mix of raw, cooked, and fried seasonal vegetables, and again, that gorgeous batter on the asparagus is gluten-free.
I’m already looking forward to Dungeness crab season returning so I can have the Crab Sen Chan ($17) back in my life, a lightly smoky noodle dish that is the closest to pad thai you’ll find on the menu (ha-ha). I’m a big fan of Khao Soi Gai ($15)—am such a sucker for its pickled mustard greens and I love spicy soups—so my fellow khao soi freaks will want to experience this new benchmark.
Dessert is all about the black rice pudding ($8); anyone who has had the fortune to dine at Chez L’Ami Jean in Paris will recognize the setup, a choose-your-own-adventure of toppings like salty coconut cream and pralines—just be sure to go overboard with all the toppings so the flavors pop (and check it, it’s dairy- and gluten-free!). There’s also the Kafe Mao (drunken coffee, $12), a fantastic Thai coffee-like dessert cocktail, and one I recommend if you’re on your way to nearby ACT and need a little pre-show boozy boost of caffeine.
The Bon Vivants are behind the playful cocktails here, from the Sao Thai (Thai girl)—a table favorite—to the boozy Samunprai Julep. I especially adore the Rasa Umami with oloroso sherry, Black Grouse, and turmeric-lime cordial, but I can’t agree with the flat $12 charge for all the cocktails when I look at the size of its tiny cordial glass compared to the others. But there’s obviously a lot of thought that went into each cocktail—you can tell the team had fun pulling from this new pantry of Thai ingredients.
The European-heavy wine list by GM Sam Zelver is a wine lover’s pay dirt, with some selections that are so good you wonder why most wine bars don’t have a list this rocking. The bottle list has many food-friendly winners that clock in around $40, and the team is quick to make good recos.
The 75-seat dining room has an array of different-sized tables (these handmade tables feel so good), including a communal table that’s perfect for a large group to take over, and a bar where solo diners can perch, both made of beautiful woods. There are some fun design touches (like a postcard rack of Thai travel images), and I always made note of the eclectic and rockin’ music, ranging from Bill Withers to Iggy Pop to jazz to the Stones.
Just like the restaurant name means, “let’s eat!”
This review was based on three dinner visits.