Laidback Kin Kao adds Thai cheer to Commercial Drive

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      Here’s what I like about Kin Kao: it’s a tiny restaurant that serves good, reasonably priced food and doesn’t make a fuss about it. It’s bright and cheery with friendly, efficient service. The kitchen has just four burners and one wok, but it turns out some interesting dishes. And there’s not one kitschy, faux-silk wall hanging in sight.

      In short, it doesn’t scream “Thai restaurant”, yet it delivers that country’s laid-back vibe—with East Van craft beer on tap.

      Kin Kao opened in February on Commercial Drive near Venables and has been hopping ever since. It’s the first restaurant for Terrence Feng, who used to work in the software world. His friend and business partner, Tang Phoonchai, was born and raised in Bangkok and did his culinary training at Vancouver Community College. While Feng manages the 25-seat, L-shaped room, Phoonchai heads the kitchen. On busy nights, four cooks cram into the little space, and if you sit at the bar you can get a glimpse of the action behind the pass.

      There’s an antique map of Bangkok above the counter, but that’s one of the few clues as to what’s cooking in the kitchen. Designed by Scott and Scott Architects, the minimalist space has clean lines and rustic materials. The smooth curves of light-wood chairs offset the industrial galvanized-metal wall, and a sweep of cerulean-blue paint on the bar triggers happy beachside memories. Small glass votive- candle holders are filled with single fuchsia blooms, brightening up the pale wood tables.

      Like the room, the menu is devoid of clutter. It’s a one-pager (thankfully) with the usual Thai suspects: pad Thai, som tam (papaya salad), and chicken satay. But it’s also got starters like deep-fried sour-cured pork ribs; these slightly zingy, juicy tidbits would go well with beer. A changing selection of Strange Fellows and 33 Acres beer is on tap, and there are also bottles of Singha and Chang if you want to keep with the Thai theme.

      Green, red, and Penang curries are all represented, and my eyes drifted magnetically to the red-curry duck. I enjoyed duck often when I lived in Thailand, where it’s much more a part of everyday meals than it is here. With its mahogany-coloured skin, the luxuriously tender meat makes for a rich dish. Swathed in a thick coconut-milk curry, the sweet slivers of bamboo shoot and tomato are balanced by the bright pineapple and lime. As an alternative for vegetarians, red-curry squash is a nice change from the usual tofu.

      The northeastern-style Thai steak salad has a fresh mix of flavours with lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves, cilantro, and roasted chili flakes, and a pleasant nubby texture from the ground, roasted rice. It’s a perfectly fine salad, but the large lettuce leaves make it awkward to eat.

      Instead, I’d recommend the stir-fried minced chicken with Thai basil. Known as grapow (or kra pao on this menu), it’s a ubiquitous meal in Thailand. Kin Kao makes a good rendition that stir-fries the ground meat with chopped long beans, soy sauce, fish sauce, and Thai chilies. Be sure to add an egg—the cooks nail the Thai way of frying it so that it’s almost chewy, with crispy edges and a soft yolk that breaks open to ooze over the jasmine rice.

      Kra pao makes a great one-plate lunch, but if you come on a Sunday, try one of the brunch dishes, served on that day only. “We wanted to do something different,” Feng explained in a phone interview after the Straight’s visits, and indeed, this is the only Vancouver restaurant I know of that ventures into Thai morning territory. But because of kitchen limitations, the cooks can’t just add on more dishes; they substitute out the curries.

      In their place are some hearty soups. (It seems anything goes for breakfast in Thailand.) Billed as Thai-style congee on the menu, khao tom is more like a thick rice soup than a porridge. The firm grains are cooked in either vegetable or chicken-and-pork broth; a choice of bok choy, carrots, and tofu or chunks of chicken or prawns makes it a meal in a bowl. Topped with fresh slivers of ginger, cilantro, garlic, pickled radish, daikon, and pickled lettuce, the gentle soup is a perfect remedy for a hangover.

      Brunch items change, and the other soup on offer when I visited was radically different, with bolder flavours. Billed as Thai 5-Spice Soup With Rice Flake Noodles, it’s difficult to picture but satisfying in the bowl. Three fall-off-the-bone-tender chicken drumsticks bathe in a deeply flavoured broth of star anise, garlic, coriander, black pepper, and soy sauce. The noodles are similar to wide sen yai rice noodles, and the soup comes with a side of chili vinegar, which is essential for balancing out the broth.

      Brunch soups and one-plate lunches are a reasonable $9 to $12 each. For dinner, starters go for $8, while mains run $11 to $14 and sticky-rice-and-fruit desserts are $5 to $6 each. Kin Kao gets busy and doesn’t take reservations: put your name in early and stroll the Drive while you wait.