When I read that a new Thai restaurant was coming to the tenderloin, I let out a lengthy sigh, rolled my eyes, and read on to find something of interest. The ratio of Thai restaurants to crackheads in these parts is about 1:2 which is to say, there are PLENTY. However, Kin Khao opened to a chorus of praise for its authenticity and refusal to go “American” (or, as the website puts it, to liberate us from the “tyranny of peanut sauce”). In the months that followed, I seemingly could not open a magazine, read a blog, or scroll my twitter feed without finding mention of Kin Khao. Interest piqued, expectations reset, I took the plunge.
Kin Khao resides within the Parc 55 hotel, though it is located on a street level corner (Mason and Ellis) with an entrance, so, a lobby stroll is not necessary. The interior is clean and fairly minimalist, with a few cute little accents here and there, such as the chalkboard column with the wine list written on it, a row of food related tsotkes atop a ceiling shelf, and a simple wall painting of a city skyline. There are two distinct dining areas, the street facing, windowed dining room in front, and the windowless space in back which includes the bar, a swath of naturally shaped wood consistent with the material used for large tables.
My first two visits were during lunch service, when the menu is a pared down version of what is offered at night, though I did notice a couple of lunch only options. On my first trip, I sampled the Pad Thai Goong Sod and the Bangkok Posh Salad.
Though it’s hard to make out in the photo, the pad thai came served with two large, head-on prawns, for the diner who enjoys a little squirt of head juice. I found the noodles to be a little heavy on tamarind, which left me longing for a slug of fish sauce, but I didn’t bother to ask for any, so this failure was partly due to user error.
The Bangkok Posh Salad, however, could be habit forming
This dish was so perfectly balanced; spectacularly crisp little gems tossed with a dressing SO tangy and tart that it was inhalable, topped with crunchy rice cake bits, fried shallots, and a soft-boiled egg for creaminess. Sublime.
My second lunch visit was a boozy one, which started with a round of delicate cocktails
Tasty, but that $12 went down the hatch in about two swigs. I followed it with a the house version of a Mai Thai (the “Mike Thai”) my favorite of all Asian food accompaniments.
Now we’re talking.
First up on the food front was the Nom Tok beans, a lima bean concoction, Issan style.
Much like the salad that I loved, I adored this by virtue of its intensity. The beans were little mounds of umami bombs, flavored with lime, mint, and soy, with a texture far more dense and chewy than what one would expect from a lima. Lettuce leaf wraps and slices of cucumber provided a nice cool, crisp, accompaniment.
The Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine was definitely one of the more unique choices…wait, who am I kidding, I’ve never seen anything like it on any Thai menu anywhere.
Inside the jar, the most delicate curry mouse, multi-dimensional yet subtle. It wasn’t CURRY. It was curry. Aside from the dollop of cream on the top, the mouse itself had a velvety whipped cream flavor and mouthfeel; mottled with the occasional toothsome mushroom. Taking spoonful’s of this to the head is advisable, though the crunchy, bland, rice cake served as the perfect conveyance as well.
And then, the moment of truth arrived in the form of the Pretty Hot Wings.
Oh lord. First of all, god bless any place that serves the whole wing. Second, the combination of lime, tamarind, fish sauce, and sriracha was oddly, slightly reminiscent of Franks, a sauce in the pantheon of desert-island-must-haves for me, while still maintaining a distinctly Asian flavor and a touch of spicy zing from the Thai chile. Better yet, the crazy crisp skin, which virtually snapped when bitten. As Jake would say, I want to put these under my pillow at night and sleep with them.
Things fell a little flat for me with the pork bowl, a soup comprised of pork belly and shoulder, with egg and tofu. A vinegar and chile dressing was served alongside.
The broth lacked punch, and, being Thai, it had an overall sour taste, which I get, but it left me craving something more substantial. It was weak to me, devoid of the depth that was present in the other dishes.
I finished up with a nice, refreshing, dessert cocktail, the citrus smash
At dinnertime, the menu opens up with a variety of sections, from bites, to greens, curries, fish, meat, sides, and, in its very own category, the nomprick relish.
Our visit started on a somewhat sour note. We had a reservation for six but ended up with a tagalong. They would only allow the extra person if we all agreed to the $50/pp pre-fixe, which none of us wanted. Our friend then sat awkwardly at the bar (what? we weren’t going to skip it for crying out loud) while we sat across the room at a table.
On the one hand, we showed up with more people than promised. However, the restaurant was not at capacity at any point during our dinner and there was plenty of space for an extra person at our table. It’s a little nuts to me if the rule is truly that parties over six cannot order a la carte, especially with food that is so shareable, but perhaps it was just a method of dissuasion and not actually the rule. Don’t know.
Our starter was a pomelo, fried shallot, peanut, cucumber, herb mixture. The presentation was lovely with the little flower garnish, the dish bright, fresh, and crunchy, with a little dab of juicy.
I was meh about ordering the Laab Tod, simply because the idea of meatballs just kind of bored me when there were so many other more unusual choices.
However, they ended up being a really great call; browned and crisp, absolutely bursting with salty intensity, spiced up by the accompanying Jaew sauce.
The Namprik Long Rua, the guy that was in a category all his own? Absolute, unadulterated, lights out, brilliance.
Basically, it was a jar of condensed stank, described on the menu thusly:
“Funky, spicy, umami-bomb Kapi shrimp paste relish, served with caramelized pork jowl, crispy passmore ranch catfish, salted duck egg, vegetables.”
The texture was sort of like a mushy pate flecked with little hunks of meat; the taste, a tongue quivering, pungent assault of funk. Those colorful, eye catching veggies served as a palate cleanser. You don’t stumble upon dishes like that often. An absolute gem, that one.
The caramelized pork belly came true to its description (voluptuous) as well
The aroma of this dish is evident just from looking at the picture. The sugary marinade was cooked down into a concentrate, the edges of the pork crusty and sweet; maillard at its absolute finest. The soft, stringy, braised pieces of meat were satisfying enough, but my real moment of zen came when I ate a piping hot piece of pure, caramel, pork fat, which spread over my tongue and coated my mouth with buttery rich decadence.
Our last dish of the evening was the famed rabbit curry.
This curry, much like the version in the mushroom terrine, was understated yet complex. I find it interesting that the kitchen delivers such strong flavors in most everything else on the menu, but the two curries I sampled, to my taste, were very low-key. The meat elements were rabbit leg, a really wonderful meatball, and, I think, a belly cut.
I don’t know that Kin Khao is for everyone. I would have a rough time there with the myriad food pussies that I am cursed to have in my life. But that’s what’s so great about this place. They give one giant middle finger to third grade palates of the world, and welcome, with open arms, the folks who thrive on bold flavors, stank, and intensity. For that, I salute them.
55 Cyril Magnin, San Francisco, CA 94102
(Corner of Mason & Ellis)
Valet parking at Parc 55 Hotel [$12/2hr]
Lunch 11:30am—2pm | Mon—Fri
Dinner 5.30pm—11pm | Nightly