This is the sixth post in the West Coast! A Week in San Francisco and Sonoma Series. Other posts in this series include Sonoma Starlight at Francis Ford Coppola Winery, Sonoma Wine Country Weekend - Taste of Sonoma 2015, Glen Ellen Star Sonoma, Santé Restaurant at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, and Russian River Brewing Company.
I've been curious about Kin Khao for ages.
I first really fell in love with Thai food about two years ago when I visited Thailand for the first time. I was blown away by the sights, sounds, and most importantly, the tastes, that Thailand had to offer. I sampled all sorts of street foods, devoured the local tropical fruits, and tasted some phenomenal noodle dishes from open air restaurants. I took multiple cooking classes, and came away with a wealth of recipes.
I've been hankering for authentic Thai food ever since coming back to Boston.
And you know what? It's surprisingly difficult to find.
This is why I was so excited when I first heard of Kin Khao. Kin Khao is the creative inspiration of Pim Techamuanvivit. Pim first became well-known through her immensely popular food blog Chez Pim. Pim started blogging well before food blogging became a thing. I also felt a connection to Pim because she was one of the three judges for Project Food Blog, a national blogging competition I poured my heart into (and won first place!) in 2010.
In 2014, Pim partnered with Michael Gaines (Manresa) to open a Thai restaurant. Pim's vision was to serve the type of Thai food she grew up eating - dishes that used herbs and spices to enhance ingredients, not cover up their inferior quality. It would be Thai home cooking dishes, executed through the lens of chefs with refined palates.
The menu is divided into multiple sections, including Bites (smaller dishes that serve well as appetizers), Meats, Fish & Seafood, Greens, Curries, Sides, and Dessert. There's even a section called Namprik Relish, which includes an "umami-bomb" shrimp paste relish served with pork jowl, crispy catfish, and seasonal vegetables.
Our table of four decided it made most sense to order a bunch of food family-style from all different sections of the menu.
Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine (vegetarian) was a very rich curry mousse-in-a-jar "terrine" served alongside crispy rice cakes. The rice cakes were very similar (if not identical) to the ones that I've had in Chinese sizzling rice soup. Here, we used them as "crackers" to eat with the rich, mushroom terrine. It was very rich, full of umami, and tasty.
One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the Nam Tok Beans (V), a dish made of scarlet runner beans tossed Isaan-style with lime, chili, rice powder, light soy, shallots, scallions, mint, and cilantro. I loved the complex mix of flavors, which were both smoky, spicy, and full of umami while at the same time being bright, herbaceous, and fragrant. It was excellent.
Another favorite was the Plah Pla Muek, charred Monterey Bay squid served with a tangy, spicy seafood sauce topped with generous amounts of peanuts and cilantro. The squid was perfectly cooked here (not too rubbery!), and I loved the bold flavors of the dish, which included tartness from lime, floral fragrance from the cilantro, umami from fish sauce, and tasty nuttiness from the peanuts. It's very flavorful and quite addictive.
The dish is on the saltier side, so it's best enjoyed with some rice!
The only real miss of the evening was the Blistered Chinese Long Beans, deep fried long beans served in XO sauce made from dried scallops, dried shrimp, dried ham, ginger, and garlic. Although the flavors could have been decent, the overall dish was just way too salty and hard to enjoy.
I was curious to try the Pad Kee Mao (drunken noodles), a dish I fell in love with in Thailand after trying it at an amazing streetside stall. Pad kee mao is a stir fried dish that includes meat, flat rice noodles, and a variety of fragrant herbs. Key attributes to a really good pad kee mao include a super hot wok (to achieve that smoky wok-fired flavor), boldly flavored fresh ingredients, and mad wok skills.
The pad kee mao here was quite good. The flavors of the the fragrant ingredients (garlic, birds eye chili, onions, bell peppers, and holy basil) definitely came through. However, it was missing that characteristic wok smoke that I remember so distinctly in Thailand.
Despite the lack of wok smoke, the pad kee mao here is still a very solid dish and enjoyable to eat. It's still authentic in its flavor profile and refreshingly not too sweet (something that happens way too often in American Thai restaurants).
Our final course was the Khun Yai’s Rabbit Green Curry, a larger dish (great for sharing!) made from Kiew Wan curry paste, rabbit leg and saddle, rabbit meatballs, apple eggplants, and Thai basil. This was also a tasty dish, with a flavorful curry sauce and tender meat.
I've always loved how Thai desserts mix sweet and salty so elegantly (that salty coconut cream they put on everything is so addictive!). Our table shared a Warm Black Rice Pudding, which came with several "toppings" that we could mix and match with the rice pudding: burnt coconut sugar caramel sauce, salty coconut cream, and puffed rice, peanut, and sesame praline.
They call it a "make-it-yourself Thai Sundae", which is not far from the truth. My favorite combination was the black rice with the salty coconut cream (love that stuff!) and the puffed rice mixture, which added a fun crunch to the dish.
I personally really enjoyed this dish, and I think anyone who loves Thai desserts would feel the same way.
We had the opportunity to briefly say hi to Pim. She was very warm and friendly. Unfortunately, she had to dash out to pick up a friend from the airport, so we didn't have a chance to really chat.
All in all, we had a very enjoyable meal at Kin Khao. Standouts were Nam Tok Beans and Plah Pla Muek (squid). I also really enjoyed the Pad Kee Mao and the simple Black Rice Pudding dessert. I would have loved to try the rest of the menu. Alas, our stomachs would not have been able to handle it.
One server told us that Pim is always trying to push the boundaries on spiciness, trying to create dishes that are closer to "Thai spicy", not "US spicy." They've come to a pretty good middle ground, where dishes are plenty spicy for most of us, even though they still don't quite reach Thai spice levels (which, admittedly, are virtually unbearable for the uninitiated!)
Kin Khao is definitely one of the best Thai restaurants I've visited in the U.S. (Though to be fair, I have not been to that many, and only a handful of really good ones). The dishes are much more authentic than what you would find at your typical Thai restaurant. They highlight bold flavors in a way that balances the four pillars of Thai cooking: sweet, salty, sour, and spicy. It's a place that has started out quite nicely, and fills a much needed void, not only for San Francisco, but really for the entire U.S.
Here's to more authentic Thai food!
Kin Khao Thai Eatery
55 Cyril Magnin, San Francisco, CA 94102
(Corner of Mason & Ellis)
Valet parking at Parc 55 Hotel [$12/2hr]