I think Kin Khao, the new restaurant from Pim Techamuanvivit (of popular food blog Chez Pim) and Chef Michael Gaines (formerly of Manresa), could be San Francisco's best Thai restaurant....soon. It's not quite there yet, but the dishes I've tried so far in a few visits over the past two weeks have me really excited to see what's next, and happy to have a restaurant in Union Square that I can recommend to visitors.
I'd recommend it for the Kua Kling Ribs ($15) alone: they're showstoppers. Dry-fried pork riblets are rubbed in a Southern-style curry paste with loads of red chilies, galangal, and a potent dose of fresh tumeric. They're tender and rich, bursting with savory, funky flavor and enough heat to make your eyes water. It's not a dish for the heat-averse, but it shows the potential of Kin Khao: daring flavors, fresh, vibrant ingredients, impressive balance, and dishes that aren't on every Thai menu in the city.
Plan ahead to cool the burn by ordering a Hua Hin Beach cocktail ($12), a delicious concoction made with Pampero dark rum, stout, coconut cream, lime, and salt, served on crushed ice in a massive mug. It's a bit like a boozed-up Thai iced coffee. The Bon Vivants (known for their Mission cocktail destination, Trick Dog) consulted on the drink menu, and Kin Khao aims to be a late-night destination, offering the full menu until 11 p.m. and bar bites until 1 a.m.
The Pretty Hot Wings ($7) don't compete with the version at Pok Pok in Portland or New York, but they manage to be both saucy and crisp, tangy with tamarind and fish sauce and a generous vinegary sriracha component. They're big guys, but served three to a plate, so if you're a group of four, you'll have to attempt hacking them apart with the forks or spoons provided.
Milder snacks include the Khao Tung Na Tung ($8), a delicately spiced, lightly sweet peanut dip flavored with minced pork and shrimp. It's served in a cute Mason jar, ready to be spooned over housemade rice cakes.
The Yum Yai Salad ($12) currently offers a mix of tempura and raw asparagus, steamed kabocha squash, thinly sliced watermelon radish, and lettuce leaves, served with a drizzle of sweet (and pretty mild) chili jam. It's a pleasant contrast of textures, but we weren't convinced that the dish worked as whole.
The curry section of the menu includes the most expensive dishes, but you shouldn't shy away, especially if you're in a group that's ready to share. Chef Gaines makes a brilliant choice of proteins in the Khun Yai's Rabbit Green Curry ($22). Instead of firm, bland chicken, the rabbit leg and saddle melts into the velvety sauce, made medium-spicy with a fresh green-chili based curry paste. The little rabbit meatballs are tender and juicy, and the Thai apple eggplants served firm. It's elegant curry that leaves me eager to try the other dishes in this section, including a massaman made with bone-in beef shank.
The Khao Soi Gai ($15), a Northern-style chicken curry soup, is ideal San Francisco comfort food, warming on a foggy and rainy day. It's served with shredded chicken and chewy egg noodles (plus crisp fried noodles on top). Pickled mustard greens, raw shallot, chili oil, and lime are offered as accoutrements, and they add a bit of pep to the dish.
Crab Sen Chan ($17) is a well-executed version of pad thai, made with chunks of local Dungeness crab that stay remarkably moist and flavorful (unlike a dry, disappointing version I had recently at Lers Ros). It's an expensive noodle dish due to the high-quality protein; it might make sense to offer an alternative version for those on a budget.
The current dessert is a DIY affair: a mild Black Rice Pudding ($8) served with toasted rice, coconut cream, and salted caramel to be poured on top. Load it up: the pudding itself is a pretty blank slate. Or just order another Hua Hin Beach to wrap up your meal.
Kin Khao is still working out the kinks, and has put lunch service on hiatus while they staff up. Check the website before heading over, and call ahead for a reservation. The restaurant is a little tricky to find: it's on the second floor of the Wyndam Parc 55 Hotel, with a currently-unmarked entrance at the corner of Mason and Ellis, though you can also take the escalator from the hotel's lobby.