When it comes to Thai food, I’m pretty picky—or at least I have been for the last eight years or so. Back in 2005, I moved to Portland, Oregon to go to college. It was there that I discovered a chicken shack tucked away on a quiet stretch of SE Division Street. Perhaps chicken is a misnomer; this tiny building was selling Thai-style grill-roasted game hens stuffed full of ginger and lemongrass alongside sticky rice and optional papaya salad. My friends and I would make our way over there in the late afternoons, carrying stacks of take-out containers filled to the brim with the golden poultry across the street to devour with our hands while sitting on the hood of the car.
Over the next few years, this humble outpost grew, taking over the house next door in order to prepare and serve myriad authentic Thai dishes, painstakingly recreated from his trips abroad by Andy Ricker. These days, Ricker’s restaurant, Pok Pok, and its subsequent siblings in Portland and New York, has changed the way many of us perceive Thai food. His cuisine is often mercilessly funky, spicy, and sweet; it demands that eaters embrace the unfamiliar and learn to adapt our perception of taste.
Given my history with this style of Thai food, I was undoubtedly excited to visit Kin Khao, the 2-month old brainchild of local blogger and jam-maker Pim Techamuanvivit and former Manresa sous chef Michael Gaines. The restaurant, like Ricker’s, is an attempt to revamp our exposure to Thai dining; Techamuanvivit is, she explains on her website, “on a mission to liberate her beloved Thai cuisine from the tyranny of peanut sauce.” I think we should all get behind that plan.
Kin Khao is hidden in the Parc 55 Hotel in Union Square. It is an odd place for a restaurant that seems geared toward a young, foodcentric crowd, but no matter—it’s super close to BART. Plus, once you’re inside the small, friendly dining room, it’s easy to forget that the building is surrounded by tourists.
The first thing to do once you’re in is to order a cocktail. Yes, Thai food often goes best with a cold beer. Yes, you will probably want one with your meal. But it’d be a shame to jump right to a lager when they’re serving a bevy of boozy libations created by the Bon Vivants. My pick was the Tom Yum (not the soup with the shrimp, the menu implores), a potent mix of gin and vermouth, accented with galangal, lemongrass, and floral kaffir lime ($12). Techamuanvivit says it’s the most popular drink in at the bar, and I can see why—aromatically complex yet easy-to-drink, it’s a perfect mix of the innovative and familiar.