Thai-Style Thai –

Pim Techamuanvivit is an old-school restaurateur, a person who knows her cuisine inside out, but she has found an intriguing new way to run a non-European restaurant. Born in Bangkok in the ’70s, into a family where delicious food was cooked and showcased daily, she came to the United States in the early ’90s to study cognitive science, specifically the subject of group collaboration. The skills appear to have set her up perfectly for opening a restaurant.

Not that that was an immediate goal. As she said when I visited her at Kin Khao, her eight-month-old Thai restaurant near Union Square in San Francisco: “I always wanted to do food. I just didn’t know how.” Because she “wanted to avoid being branded as a ‘Thai’ cook,” her route to Kin Khao was circuitous. At some point during her eight years in Silicon Valley, she began her own food blog but stopped when she felt it had become too common. Five years ago, she said, “I was around such beautiful fruits, from amazing exotic citrus to gorgeous heirloom stone fruits, I thought I’d learn how to make jam.” She won both praise and Good Food Awards for the products, but the “glorified hobby,” as she calls it, made “barely enough to finance my shoe habit.”


Pim TechamuanvivitCreditIllustration by Melinda Josie

She kept thinking about returning to Thai food, “the kind of food I grew up eating: everything made from scratch, using great ingredients, and using spices to enhance ingredients rather than masking their inferior quality. I became afraid that if I didn’t do anything, this type of food would just disappear.”

Because, Techamuanvivit told me, “I tend to geek out when I want to learn something,” she became a “better cook of Thai food than of jam.” But she then made a savvy decision: She hired an experienced, intelligent chef, worked through the dishes with him, made sure they jibed with her memories and palate — and then left him in charge. So Kin Khao is not exactly a family-run operation of self-taught cooks but rather the most exacting Thai restaurant in which I’ve ever eaten.

The chef is Mike Gaines, who cooked at the widely praised Manresa, a modernist restaurant in Los Gatos that has been closed temporarily because of a fire. (Techamuanvivit has another link to Manresa: Her boyfriend is its head chef, David Kinch.) Gaines never imagined cooking Thai food, but after a visit to Bangkok with Kinch and Techamuanvivit, he thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime project, though he now thinks of himself as more translator than chef.

So Kin Khao is neither a chef-driven restaurant nor an especially creative one, in that the food is traditional; if it’s unusual in the States, it’s because it’s largely home cooking. The reviews and word-of-mouth have been almost universally raves. And though I was late to the party, I’m happy to join the crowd. Some dishes are standardized classics, while others are from family recipes. And they’re prepared seasonally; when holy basil and cherry tomatoes go out of season next month, for example, the dishes prepared with them will do the same.



On my visit, I tried Mushroom Hor Mok, a spectacular vegetarian spread of mushrooms, curry paste and coconut milk, and a lovely salad of raw, steamed and fried vegetables with the ridiculously fine chile jam featured here. (The same jam is also served with a crisp-fried duck egg and fried and raw shallots.)

The salad doesn’t really need a recipe: Steam some vegetables, slice others and use a standard tempura recipe — with rice flour if you have it — to cook some whole leaves of kale, shiso or arugula. Thin the chile jam with a little lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, and use it to dress the vegetables, along with some salad greens. (Or just thin the jam a little and throw it on any salad you want; trust me, you will find ways to use it.)

These, along with a noodle dish called Pad Kee Mao, which blows the doors off any Pad Thai you’ve ever had, are all dishes any home cook can make, and for which there are recipes online. Then there are some dishes that I, at least, would not want to tackle, like Namprik Long Rua (the menu calls this a “umami bomb”), made of layers of caramelized pork jowl, baked-and-fried catfish and nam prik, the classic Thai dipping sauce. This is spooned over rice and then eaten with green mango, fried and raw eggplant, a number of other vegetables and a salted duck egg yolk. A green curry of rabbit was equally complex, subtle and magnificent, as was Massaman Nuea, a strikingly European-like curry of braised beef cheeks.

It’s a far cry from jam.

Recipes: Nam Prik Pao (Chile Jam) | Yum Yai Salad | Pad Kee Mao |Mushroom Hor Mok

~Mark Bittman

Thai-Style Thai –

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