Saturday, October 13, 2018

Travel Eats: Kin Khao (San Francisco)

Dirty Girl tomatoes at Kin Khao
How did they make tomato salad taste incredible?
I don't even like tomatoes!
Our most notable food adventure in San Francisco was at Kin Khao, a Thai restaurant that boasts a Michelin star. (Pausing here for oohs and aahs.)

How good was it? Well, here's how Amy described it: There's a scene in The Princess Bride where Buttercup thinks Westley has been killed by pirates, and in a heartbroken stupor she murmurs, "I will never love again." That's us, except with Thai food. Kin Khao is so good that any other Thai food I've ever had pales in comparison.

People associate Michelin-starred places with the snootiest of haute cuisine, but mood at Kin Khao is unassuming. It's located inside a Hilton, right across the hall from (yes, really) a FedEx Express. The inside is modern and minimal, casual to the point that I felt comfortable coming straight from our day of sightseeing in shorts and a T-shirt. The staff, while clearly rushed from the busy night, was still friendly and attentive.

Since this was Part I of our first anniversary celebration, we were treated to two glasses of sparkling white wine, dry but slightly sweet. Amy ordered the Butterfly Collins, which turned from blue to purple as the server poured in a bit of unidentified liquid. It was a bit like a Tom Collins, fizzy but with a cucumber foretaste that also lingered after the sweetness and the liquor subsided. I got the My Thai, which was more or less a very tasty Mai Tai, tropical and almondy with a generous helping of rum.

Miang kham at Kin Khao
FYI: Pictures aren't really gonna do this food justice.
Considering the quality and amount that you get, the $65 per person prix fixe menu is a steal. It's eight dishes, plus three types of rice, served family style in quick succession. What followed can only be described as an onslaught of incredible flavors.

The miang kham, a kind of leaf-wrapped amuse bouche, was filled (if I understood correctly) with finger lime, trout, shallot and a bit of bird's eye chile. It tasted strongly of lemongrass and citrus, plus a bit of the funk of fish sauce. Good start. The next dish accomplished what anyone who knows me would consider impossible: It made me enjoy raw tomatoes. This little salad leaned into the acidity of the tomatoes, dousing them in a tangy white soy and lime dressing. It was also sweet and peanutty with some pungency from both cooked and raw shallots.

By now I was noticing a few patterns: there was lots of fish sauce, peanut and shallot, there were tons of competing yet harmonious flavors, and everything was delicious.

By all accounts we shouldn't have cared for the nam tok beans either. Cranberry bean lettuce wraps? Really? These, though, were flash fried so that they were crispy yet somehow still light, dressed in lime and chile and coated in toasted rice powder so that they were salty, spicy and tangy all at once. Somehow, improbably, Kin Khao was three for three.

Phla pla muek (squid salad) at Kin Khao
Behold the Thai everlasting gobstopper.
Phla pla muek is basically a spicy squid salad, which are not three words you often see together. It still worked perfectly. Of course it did. The flavors actually came in discrete waves like an everlasting gobstopper: first sweet, then tangy and salty, followed by the pungent fish sauce, and finally the crumble of peanuts and cilantro. How did they do that? No, really, someone call a food scientist; I want to know.

The first thing I heard from Amy when she tried the pork belly was: "Are we in heaven?" This is sorta Kin Khao's signature dish, and it was everything I could have asked for. The crackling actually fell right off into the sauce, so I ate it immediately while it was still crisp. I could swear I got goosebumps. The rest was actually like two different dishes: the fattier part was luscious, melty and unbelievably tender, while the meatier part was like a darkly sweet barbecue pork. The sauce it came with was great with the belly, though a bit too richly sweet when I put some on the rice.

Massaman curry beef, pole beans and rice at Kin Khao
Curry, beans and rice. Looks like just your
average meal—keyword being "looks."
Speaking of that: We got white jasmine rice, which had its usual faintly floral aroma. The sticky rice was not sweet as I was expecting, but rather just dry and, well, sticky. It was fine. But I have to thank Kin Khao for introducing me to brown jasmine rice, which I had no idea existed. I'm no fan of ordinary brown rice (it's kind of whole-grainy and reminds me of quinoa), but this had the same delicious fragrant quality as the white jasmine. I'll be getting some for home use!

Our massaman beef curry served as an entrée course of sorts. The braised beef cheek was tender, though a little more stewy than I prefer. The curry itself was excellent: creamy, mild and hearty, topped with crunchy, lightly breaded shallot rings. It came together for a dish so stick-to-your-bones that I felt like I was back at my nonexistent Thai grandmother's house. That was served alongside blistered pole beans in an "XO sauce" composed of dried scallops, shrimp and ham. Think green beans without the bitterness, salty and garlicky with a massive hit of umami. Yum.

Stop making me like things I'm not supposed to like, Kin Khao!
At this point our stomachs were reaching the bursting point, but dessert was still to come: Thai tea soft serve. Thai tea has a distinct cardamom and star anise flavor I'm not a huge fan of, but it worked here because it was mellowed by the sweet condensed milk. Clusters of satisfyingly chewy tapioca and a topping of crispy coconut flakes provided a nice texture variation. Amy was too full, but I finished mine, because it was great and also I will never let dessert beat me.

I've rambled long enough, so I'll keep my summary brief: There's no denying that Kin Khao is pricey, but it's cheap for the experience you're getting. Few places are bold enough to bring such a broad and vibrant spectrum of flavors to the table. Kin Khao beats out any other Thai restaurant I've been to—not by a mile, but by a marathon. Everything here is great. Don't hesitate. Just go.

Score: 10 out of 10 (Extraordinary)

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