Kin Khao: Upscale Thai Tries to Sort Out Its Identity on Your Tongue

Location can make or break a restaurant, or so the conventional thinking goes. It's not a factor I consider much in a place like S.F., where high-end food can be found in dive bars and basements, and citizens will travel upward of an hour for the very best dim sum or Korean barbecue.

Food blogger/jam-maker turned restauranteur Pim Techamuanvivit went for the most mainstream of locations when opening Kin Khao, her upscale, often exciting new Thai restaurant: a hotel in Union Square. It seems like an odd choice. The menu of “authentic” dishes that Thai-raised Techamuanvivit grew up with is probably too exotic for tourists, who may only recognize green curry on the list (and here that curry is served with rabbit, not more pedestrian chicken or tofu). It's a hard sell for locals, too. The hourglass-shaped space tucked in the back lobby of the Parc 55 hotel is awkward, and the prices are significantly higher than the Thai restaurants a few blocks west in the Tenderloin. God knows getting a restaurant space in this city is hard enough, but spicy, obscure, high-end Thai food does seem like a concept more suited to the Mission than the corner of Mason and Ellis.

There is of course something racist, or at least jingoistic, lurking in the idea that a $17 plate of pasta with locally sourced crab at a New American restaurant is acceptable, while $17 for Thai noodles with the same crab is not. But the prices themselves weren't my problem with Kin Khao. The restaurant is vigilant about using local, sustainable ingredients in its dishes, and the kitchen ­— helmed by Manresa alum Michael Gaines ­— makes its own curries, chile sauces, and other labor-intensive items. That attention to sourcing and detail costs money whether you're making California or Thai cuisine. The downside is the same too. Charging a lot of money for food means that you have less leeway for mediocrity, and for every dish at Kin Khao that soared, there was another that never got off the ground.

When the food was good, it was some of the best Thai food I've ever had. The dry-fried pork riblets, in particular, were remarkable. The first hit was redolent of lemongrass and curry, but then layers of spice walloped the taste buds and didn't stop. Less hot but no less interesting was the yum yai salad, a collection of texturally contrasting raw, cooked, and tempura vegetables in delicate chile dressing that was more sweetness than spice. And the black rice pudding, with its DIY garnishes of coconut sugar caramel, coconut cream, and peanut-sesame pralines, had just enough sugar to satisfy, but was bland enough to tamp down the mouth-fires that had been stoked throughout the meal.

The cocktails, too, got the table talking. They're designed by the Bon Vivants, of Trick Dog fame, and used Thai herbs and ingredients to delicious ends. I particularly enjoyed a take on a julep made with Thai basil and Dickel whiskey, and the Tom Yum, a gin drink heavy on galangal and lemongrass that captured the sweet-sour interplay of that soup. And the Hua Hin Beach, an umbrella-garnished rum drink made with coconut cream, stout, and kaffir lime, was the perfect antidote to any excessive spice. (There's also wine, beer, a long tea list from Song Tea, and non-alcoholic beverages like blue flower limeaid, tamarind water, and Thai iced coffee.)

Unfortunately, the bar in the restaurant is tiny, or else it would be an ideal place to stop in for a cocktail and a snack. I'd gladly soothe my after-work woes with the Pretty Hot Wings, big, meaty chicken wings marinated in fish sauce and garlic, fried, and then coated in a vibrant Sriracha-tamarind sauce. A small Mason jar of pork/shrimp/peanut dip meant to be spooned onto coconut rice cakes was more conducive to sharing, but its subtle flavor was lost in the louder dishes on the table. Another mixed success was charred octopus with a zingy citrus sauce, like a more hardcore version of Korean spicy squid, but the protein was overcooked and rubbery.

Then there were the more conventional Thai dishes, which were some of the least interesting on the menu. Green curry was complex and creamy, everything you'd want in a curry, but all the effort of making it from scratch daily didn't register as markedly different than the curry of, say, Lers Ros a few blocks away. Its rabbit meatballs, heavily seasoned and a bit gamey, were standouts, but the rabbit saddle was tricky to portion out.

The most disappointing dish by far was the aforementioned $17 noodles: crab sen chan, rice noodles in a chantaburi sauce with Dungeness crab that were more or less another take on pad Thai. The crab fat-infused sauce didn't taste like much of anything, and the dish was marred by large clumps of gummy, unsauced rice noodles. It was a far cry from the famous crab noodles of the Slanted Door, another upscale, local Asian restaurant that has persevered for years because of its consistency and fine-dining atmosphere. Kin Khao's variable food and studiously casual vibe — its too-loud rock soundtrack, serve-yourself flatware, and chalkboard drawing and postcard rack decor — just made its flaws that much more apparent. When you try something new, you run the risk of losing yourself in the process.

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